WOODEN COFFIN NAILS AND HANDLES
What is the basis for Orthodox objections to metal handles on the coffin and the use of metal nails in it?
There is some objection in law and custom to having coffins altogether. Many consider it proper to bury the dead surrounded only by loose boards, so that the body shall be in contact with the earth. In fact, however, coffins have been used from earliest times, and contact with the earth, the requirement that “the dust return to the dust” (i.e., to be in contact with the earth) is attained either by boring holes in the coffin or having the lower board removable, as Judah Hanasi required for himself (j. Kelaim IX : 4), or by putting dust in the coffin and/or pieces of clay on the eyes of the deceased (cf. Schach to Yore Deah 362 : 1).
Although there is no real objection to the use of a coffin, there is some objection to the use of a coffin other than a wooden coffin. This is based upon the statement of Maimonides (Yad, “Hilchos Avel” IV : 4) that one should bury in a coffin of wood. However, it is clear that even in ancient times, they used coffins of other material, such as marble or pottery (Semachot, chapter 8). As for the frequent modern use of metal caskets, this is a subject of some debate in modern Jewish law. The use of metal caskets is justified by Jacob Bruell in “Ben Zekunim,” p. 28 ff., and by Jacob Levinson, “Ha Torah ve-Hamada,” 26. However, there is no doubt that the bulk of Jewish law and custom is against the use of metal caskets, even though one would imagine that putting earth and clay in the casket would justify its use as it does the use of the completely wooden casket.
If, then, a wooden casket is used, why is it that some Orthodox people object to the use of metal handles or even metal nails (on the wooden casket)? The question is discussed by Greenwald in his compendium, “Kolbo Al Avelus” (p. 182). It is in answer to a question from a Rabbi Lerner of New York. Evidently there are large numbers of Jews in New York who insist that only wooden handles and wooden nails be used. The undertakers take advantage of this fact and charge a great deal extra for such special coffins. Since numerous people go to such trouble and expense to avoid metal handles and metal nails, one would imagine that the matter is firmly based in Jewish law or custom. Yet Greenwald, who specializes in all the details of burial customs, could not find anything to justify such scrupulousness. Apparently Rabbi Lerner, in writing to him, found some sort of vague justification in the fact that the Shulchan Aruch requires (in Orah Hayyim 180 : 5) that during the grace after meals, the knives on the tables should be covered because metal (the knife or sword) symbolizes the shortening of life (cf. Be’er Hetev). If that is the sole source, then it is a very shaky one. First, it is absurd to make an analogy between a knife and the handles and nails of a coffin, and, secondly, it is equally absurd to apply what the hving might do as protection against ill omens to what should be done for those already dead. As for keeping metal away from the dead because of ill omen, that, too, is unjustified. The Talmud says distinctly (b. Shabbas 151b) that we may put metal weights on the body of the dead on the Sabbath (to keep it from swelling while awaiting the funeral which could not take place on the Sabbath) and Rashi, in his “Pardes” (ed. Ehrenreich, p. 33), repeats the law, saying that we may put a sword or iron on the dead on the Sabbath.
It is clear, therefore, that the objection to the use of metal handles or nails in the wooden coffin has no clear root in Jewish law or even widespread custom, and is a folkloristic belief of dubious origin.