A Kosher Casket?
Kosher means fit or proper for ritual use, but unlike the biblical delineation of which foods are kosher, there are no biblical rules to give guidance regarding manufacture of kosher caskets. The Talmud contains dozens of occurrences of Hebrew words that are translated to English as “casket”, “coffin”, “bier”, “chest” and more. But nowhere in Jewish writings is there a discussion of what makes a casket kosher.
Tachrichim (shroud or burial garment) manufacturers have suggested that there are “kosher” tachrichim dependent on the observance level of the workers and certifying that the product was not made on Shabbat. The rationale for this seems slim for tachrichim, and even slimmer for caskets. Basing Kashrut on worker’s level of observance is a novel approach not practiced in kosher food manufacturing. More interesting and fruitful pursuits to define a kosher casket might include looking at working conditions, wages and health benefits of the employees, as well as the environmental impact of the manufacturing ingredients and process.
Simple & Inexpensive
The Talmud directs that all aspects of funeral and burial should be kept simple and inexpensive, and by extension fit and proper. BT (Babylonian Talmud) Moed Katan 27a- 27b contains an extended discussion of funeral practices and a story about Rabban Gamliel. This discussion can open a window to the meaning of ‘Kosher’ in relation to a casket.
Formerly, they were wont to bring out the rich [for burial] on a dargesh [a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets] and the poor on a plain bier, and the poor felt shamed: they instituted therefore that all should be brought out on a plain bier, out of deference for the poor.
Without knowing the difference between a dargesh and a bier in Rabban Gamliel’s time, the implication is clear – the dargesh is fancy and affordable to the rich; the bier is simple and used by those who are poor. The dargesh made it easy to carry the body and to show off wealth. The bier (Hebrew – mitah) is a simple stand or platform that holds and/or carries the body.
The Shulchan Aruch allows for burial with or without a casket, but gives no indication of how to determine if a casket is Kosher. Rabbi Mosha Epstein in his Taharah Manual of Practices quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Feinstein could find no source for an all wood casket. He cites Rambam, yet Rambam in his Book of Judges – Laws of Mourning – 4:4 says: “It is permissible to bury the dead in a wooden casket.”
In the 1960’s, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America negotiated funeral standards with the Jewish Funeral Directors of America. The Orthodox Rabbis were successful in incorporating taharah, tachrichim, Shmirah, and ground burial into the standards. They failed in their attempt to include simple plain caskets.
It was only 60 years ago that an expensive all wood casket became acceptable in the Jewish community. Our Moed Katan example goes back over 1,700 years. We should pick up Rabban Gamliel’s cause and champion a simple casket (or none at all) as a return to less expensive funerals and burials.
David Zinner is the Executive Director of Kavod V’Nichum (honor and comfort), and of the Gamliel Institute, and serves as instructor for the non-denominational Gamliel Institute, a nonprofit center for Chevrah Kadisha organizing, education, and training. In his role as executive director Zinner co-teaches courses on Chevrah Kadisha history, organizing, taharah and shmira (sitting with the deceased until burial), and building capacities in Jewish communities that enable all participants to meaningfully navigate these final life cycle events.