COVERING THE CASKET
Nowadays many of the funerals of deceased members take place in the temple sanctuary or chapel. At these funerals the casket is sometimes of expensive bronze and at other times simpler and less expensive. A suggestion therefore has been made in the interest of equality and democracy, namely, that we should have a rule that every casket at a funeral on the temple premises should be covered with the same cloth (a pall). Is this suggestion in accordance with Jewish tradition and law? (Asked by Vigdor Kavaler, Pittsburgh, Pennsyl-vania.)
THERE IS A long tradition in Judaism to democratize and simplify funeral procedures. The Talmud (Ketuboth 8b) speaks of a time when funerals had grown so expensive (especially with regard to the elaborate garments placed upon the dead) that people feared the expense, and many ran away from the task of burial of the dead in order to avoid the financial burden. Therefore Rabban Gamliel the Patriarch provided (as the Talmud put it) “simplicity for himself” (nohag kalus); namely, he decided that he would be buried in a simple shroud of plain linen. Because of the example set by the patriarch, the custom then became prevalent to clothe all the dead in plain, simple linen. Also, the Talmud (Moed Katan 27b) describes the differences that had developed between the funeral practices of the rich and those of the poor. Among the rich, food was brought to the mourners in gold and silver bowls. Among the poor, it was brought in plain reed baskets. The rich (at the funeral meal) drank out of expensive clear glasses, the poor out of cheap colored glasses. The rich families carried out their departed in elaborate beds, while the poor carried them out in plain litters. It was ordained therefore, in order not to shame the poor, that in all these three instances the simpler practices of the poor should be followed by all. From all the above it is clear that the trend, even in the Talmudic past, was for funerals to get more and more elaborate and expensive, and therefore that efforts were constantly made to simplify them and thus democratize them. So there is no question that the inquiry made here is in harmony with an ongoing traditional sentiment.
The question asked here concentrates primarily on the matter of the casket. But in the problems and the remedies just cited in the Talmudic passage, which dealt with various examples of luxury, the litter (in our case, the casket) was only one of the problems. It is therefore necessary to consider whether the casket has indeed any special importance and what in general is its status in Jewish law and custom.
The prevalent Orthodox custom today is to use a wooden casket; even metal nails and screws are avoided, and the casket is held together by wooden pegs. One would therefore imagine that a custom now so firmly held in American Orthodox Jewish life must surely have a long history behind it. But actually that is not so. The very need for a casket at funerals has no strong precedent in the Jewish past. In Palestine the dead were generally wrapped in cloths and put into the niches of the burial caves without any casket at all. The general use of the casket developed in Babylon, where, in the alluvial soil, no rocky caves were available. Yet even so, when caskets did come into use, they were not really “constructed” but were chiefly loose boards, so the body came into direct contact with the earth. Preferral burial was directly into the earth without a casket (Tur, Yore Deah 362; also Shulchan Aruch, ibid.). Complete caskets were used for Kohanim late in the six-teenth and seventeenth centuries (cf. Joshua Falk [d. 1614] to the Tur, ibid.). However, Sabbatai Cohen (Shach, ibid.) says that a complete coffin may be used if earth is placed within the casket, which would then constitute a direct contact with earth. Clearly, then, the casket now universally used has no special status or firm importance in the law.
As for the material of which the casket was made (which question is also involved here), Maimonides says it should be of wood (Yad, Hit. Avel, 4:4). Nevertheless, they did have caskets of other materials, as can be seen from the law in Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 362:5, which states that a coffin that has been used for one body may not be used for another body, and it adds that if the coffin is of stone or pottery, it should be broken so as not to be used again. Is, then, the modern casket of metal at all permissible? This is debated by the various authorities (see the citations in Reform Jewish Practice, Vol. II, p. 100).
From all this it is clear that the casket is not a central or long-established appurtenance in Jewish burial tradition. Up to recent generations no solid casket was used. Of course, as has been mentioned, nowadays Orthodox Jews prefer a wooden casket. But it is clear that caskets of other materials were, according to many authorities, permissible. Considering that in most modern cemeteries the casket itself, when lowered into the grave, is encased in a concrete box, and therefore is far removed from direct contact with earth, then surely, as far as non-Orthodox families and congregations are concerned, there is no essential objection to a bronze casket.
However, granting that a bronze casket is, at least for us, unobjectionable, the question which is asked here still remains: Is it not against the spirit of equality and democracy that some families should use an expensive bronze casket and others a simpler, perhaps even a wooden, one? Should not all caskets be covered with a carpetlike pall to achieve the appearance of equality at funerals?
If the question of equality concerned only the casket, the matter might be much simpler. But there is a much wider difference between funerals than the type of casket used. This was always so, as the passage from Moed Katan 27b indicates. Nowadays, too, there are other differences between funerals than differences of the caskets. Some families have very few flowers. Others will even have a complete blanket of orchids. At the grave some families will have almost no flowers and others will have many flowers. Would we consider, then, in the interest of equality, that we ought to prohibit all flowers at our funerals or, by some rule or other, restrict the use of them? As a matter of fact, therein is one of the basic Orthodox objections to the use of flowers at funerals. The classic statement of the objection is made by the famous Chassidic leader of the last generation, Eliezer Spiro (Der Mun-caczer) in his responsa Minchas Eliezer, Vol. IV, 61. He objects to flowers at funerals primarily because their use is undemocratic, the rich having flowers, and the poor, few or none at all. But in spite of such Orthodox objections to flowers at funerals, the Chaplaincy Commission (composed of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis) permitted the use of flowers on Decoration Day on the graves of Jewish soldiers. The permission is based upon the argument that those flowers are for the honor of the dead. Much is permitted in Jewish law in honoring the dead.
If, therefore, it is virtually impossible to abolish or restrict the use of flowers, which the family and friends use to express their reverence for the dead, then by the same token, one cannot in a modern congregation properly prohibit any family from buying the most beautiful casket which they feel is in honor of their dead.
This being so, what can we do to express the spirit of equality and democracy which is a consistent and important motif in Jewish funeral history? This can still be done, I believe, by making a distinction between what is permanent and what is transitory, also between what is conspicuous and what will become invisible. What is permanent and conspicuous in the cemetery is the tombstone. The stone stands for all to see for generations. Many historic congregations, therefore, had committees to supervise the choice of tombstones (and inscriptions) so that none would be over elaborate or conspicuous (cf. Greenwald, Kol Bo, p. 3 80). This is because of the feeling that we are all “co-partners in the cemetery” (see Moses Schick, Yore Deah 170).
Therefore it is important that our equality should be expressed by what is permanently seen in the cemetery. We need not be too much concerned by the fact that flowers may be more numerous at one funeral than another. They soon fade away. And so, too, the casket, however expensive, is buried in earth, away from view.
To sum up: Orthodox sentiment would prefer to have absolute equality in every phase of the funeral, the plain wooden casket and no flowers at all. Non-Orthodox congregations, too, should not allow too much latitude with regard to the enduring appurtenances of the cemetery, the tombstones, and the permanent planting. But with the transient and soon-to-be-invisible objects of the funeral, the established, modern, liberal custom is to allow family choice and preference. From the Orthodox point of view, there should be no casket of bronze and no flowers at all. From our point of view, these things are permissible, and we should allow a family to express itself as it wishes in this regard to honor their dead, even though one funeral may, for the brief half-hour of the service, seem more elaborate than another. After the funeral, one grave is just like another.