QUESTIONS ABOUT BURIAL IN A COFFIN:
- I have heard that burial in coffin is forbidden according to the Jewish religion- is that correct?
- Is burial in a coffin permitted according to the torah?
- Why is the Chevra Kaddisha opposed to burial in a coffin?
- What is the approach of the rabbis towards burial in a coffin?
QUESTIONS ABOUT FUNERAL RITES
- I would like to have a funeral service that suits my life, but it is important to me that the rabbi say Kaddish. Can both these desires be integrated?
QUESTIONS ABOUT CREMATION
- What is the cremation process?
- Is cremation accepted throughout Jewish religion?
- Is cremation accepted throughout the world?
- What are the advantages of choosing cremation?
- What can be done with the ashes?
- What is the connection between cremation and the problem of land scarcity?
- Is the burning of human remains permitted in Israel?
I HAVE HEARD THAT BURIAL IN A COFFIN IS FORBIDDEN ACCORDING TO THE JEWISH RELIGION – IS THAT CORRECT?
Burial in a coffin is not forbidden by Judaism, and is not even forbidden by Halacha [Jewish religious laws]. The prohibition comes from the custom that originated in a desire to create full equality and unity among the dead. According to this custom, the obligation is for burial to be done in shrouds, but this requirement does not conflict with burial in a coffin.
Practically speaking, all the Jewish communities outside of Israel bury the dead in a coffin. In order to solve problems arising from interpretation of the verse “You came from dust and you shall return to the dust”, the more traditional communities place a small bag of earth from the Land of Israel in the coffin; while in other communities, holes are made in the coffin in order for the deceased to come in contact with the ground.
Burial in coffins is also carried out in Israel, for example at the funerals of fallen I.D.F. soldiers, as well as at the funerals of national leaders (e.g., Yitzchak Rabin). The Orthodox Religious Councils of some regions in Israel perform burials in coffins, and this is also an accepted practice in moshavim, kibbutzim, and some of the smaller settlements.
IS BURIAL IN A COFFIN PERMITTED ACCORDING TO THE TORAH?
There is no prohibition of burial in a coffin in the Torah, and there are even quotes that prove that this custom was prevalent during Bible times:
“And Joseph died at the age of 110. and they embalmed him, and he was placed in a coffin in Egypt”.
WHY IS THE CHEVRA KADDISHA OPPOSED TO BURIAL IN A COFFIN?
When Mr. Yehoshua Yishai, the former executive director of the Chevra Kaddisha in Tel Aviv, was asked why the deceased is not buried in a coffin he replied:
“Burial in a coffin steals an additional 20% beyond the normal area needed for burial. The Halacha forbids the creation of a difference between one deceased person and another. Anyone who cannot afford to acquire a coffin will not be buried in a coffin, and whoever can afford a coffin will be buried in one!?”
From this answer, one can understand that among the other reasons for opposition to burial in a coffin is the fact that the coffin “will steal” space in the ground.
WHAT IS THE APPROACH OF THE RABBIS TOWARDS BURIAL IN A COFFIN?
Here is what Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria (of blessed memory) said about burial in a coffin and directly in the ground:
“The story is told about Rabbi (Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, the Head of the Sanhedrin) and Rabbi Eliezer (in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Kilaim, Chapter 9, Halacha 4, the story is told of Rabbi bar Kiria and Rabbi Elazar) who were walking through the gate outside Tiberias. They saw a coffin that had arrived from abroad for burial in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi said to Rabbi Eliezer: What did the deceased gain by dying outside of Israel and being brought for burial in the Land of Israel? I say about him (Jeremiah, 2:7) ‘You have made my inheritance into an abomination” – in your lives, “and you will come and contaminate my land’ – in your deaths. Rabbi Eliezer answered: Since he has been buried in the Land of Israel, the Holy One Blessed Be He forgives him, as is written (Deuteronomy 32: 43) ‘And His land will atone for His people’ (and in the Jerusalem Talmud, “since they come to the Land of Israel, they take up a clod of earth and place it in the coffin, as is written: ‘And His land will atone for His people’.”]
The above story is the source for the custom of placing earth from the Land of Israel on those who die abroad, as brought in the commentary of Rabbi Maier Isserlish on Yoreh Deah, 363:1. Refer to the introduction to Noda BiYehuda [commentary by Rabbi Yechezkel Segal Landau 1714-1793], words of friendship from his son Rabbi Jacobke, as copied from his father’s will: “And holy earth that he prepared for himself should be scattered over his body”.
The source of the problem is explained in Yoreh Deah: “He who puts his dead in a coffin and does not bury him transgresses against the commandment not to delay burial of the dead. And if they put him in a coffin and buried him in the ground, he does not transgress against this commandment. In any case, it is meritorious to bury him directly in the ground, even outside of the Land of Israel”. And this matter is explained in the Jerusalem Talmud Kilaim, Chapter 9, Halacha 3, where our holy Rabbi commanded in his will: “And may my coffin be perforated in the ground”. Nachmanides commented: “for burial in the ground is a commandment, and do not say, out of love for the Land of Israel, but [this should be done] even abroad, for it is written: ‘And to the dust shall you return’.”
And thus, anyone buried in a coffin, even if it has not been perforated, still observes the commandment of burial in the ground as regards the basic intention of the law, since the coffin is nullified as far as the ground goes; while regarding one who is not put in a coffin, but whose body rests on top of the body of another dead person, that person has not fulfilled the commandment of burial at all. This is how the Ner Aharon [Rabbi Avraham Aharon Burstein 1867-1926] explains what is written there.
In commentaries on related subjects, one can also find references indirectly granting authority for burial in a coffin: when Rabbi Silberstein from Ramat Elchanan in B’nei Brak was asked the question of when to commence the mourning period, included in his answer, was this reply: “‘…What is the law concerning the burial of a newborn that has died?’ “There is a special Halacha regarding a stillborn child that permits its burial along with its mother in one grave. If they died at the same time, then the mother should be buried in a coffin, and the child should be positioned on her right side. However, if she was buried first, or if the child was buried first, it is forbidden to open the grave in order to bury them together (Drisha 264).”
From Moed Katan 27 – “From when [does the mourner] turn the beds over [as a sign of mourning]?…from when the gollel [burial stone] is sealed.”
In his commentary, Rabbenu Tam [Rabbi Yaakov ben Meir Tam c. 1100-1171] explained that the gollel is a large stone that is placed over the grave, and the Bet Yoseph also explained it thus. Rashi says that the gollel is a covering for the coffin. [Nachmanides: and according to him, the deceased is put inside the coffin and the cover is closed with nails with the intention of putting the coffin in a niche or a grave, marking the hour it is sealed [as the time from which to commence mourning practices].
From the Jerusalem Talmud Tractate Pesachim, Chapter 8, 62:2, Halacha 8, Gemara:
“We have learned that he who transfers a coffin from one place to another is not considered to be ritually impure [as one would be had gathered the bones]. Rav Acha said this is correct if you say that the coffin was made of stone, but if the coffin was made of wood, then it is considered as if he had gathered the bones. Rabbi Yossa said, “And even if it was a coffin made of wood, he is not considered as if he had gathered the bones.’ ”
I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE A FUNERAL SERVICE THAT WILL SUIT MY LIFE STYLE, BUT IT IS IMPORTANT TO ME THAT THE RABBI SAY KADDISH. CAN BOTH THESE DESIRES BE INTEGRATED?
Kaddish is a prayer that praises the Creator of the World. The main significance in the recitation of the Kaddish is precisely that it should be recited by a first-degree member of the family (parent, spouse, sibling, child). There is also active participation in the recitation of the Kaddish by the congregation. One recites the Kaddish softly, and everyone joins in by responding “Amen”.
In any case, saying additional prayers is not in contradiction to Halacha or Judaism. Similarly, Judaism does not oppose the addition of texts and the reading of selected passages appropriate for the deceased; rather, they are considered eulogies. If you do not have a specific Rabbi, you can turn to us, and we would be happy to help you find a suitable Rabbi from among our associates.
WHAT IS THE CREMATION PROCESS?
Cremation is a process in which the body is placed in a special oven in which it is burned at a very high temperature, a process lasting between one and a half to two hours. The final result is ashes, which are
transferred to a temporary storage utensil.
The temporary utensil and the ashes are handed over to the family, which then decides what it wishes to do – whether to move the ashes to an elegant funeral urn, to spread them in nature, to bury them in a cemetery or some other place, to store them in a columbarium, or any other possibility.
IS CREMATION IN OPPOSITION TO THE JEWISH RELIGION?
Cremation is not in opposition to Judaism. We turned to one of the heads of the Rabbinical Court, and we received the unambiguous answer that not only is it not in opposition to Judaism, it was even the accepted practice at the time of the kings. Outside of Israel, the choice of cremation is common and accepted (even among Jews), and with the passage of time, the percentage of people making this choice of leave-taking is increasing.
It should be pointed out that Orthodox Jews do not choose this method, while Reform and Conservative Jews do accept the practice.
One can find a number of references to cremation in the Bible; they unequivocally prove that the during Biblical times cremation was an accepted leave-taking practice, as can be seen in the following quotation:
SAMUEL I, 31, 12:
“All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Bet- Shan, and they came to Yavesh, and burnt them there.”
IS CREMATION ACCEPTED THROUGHOUT THE WORLD?
In more progressive countries (and especially in those countries with a deficit of land), laws have been introduced encouraging cremation. For example, in Holland, England, Argentina, and various other countries, laws concerning public cemeteries have been passed, determining that the grave plot is leased for a limited period of time, at the end of which the remains are to be disinterred from the grave and transferred for cremation.
Here are some statistics about the use of the cremation option throughout the world:
- The United States – 26%
- Canada – 45%
- Holland – 68%
- Great Britain – 70%
- Japan – almost 100%
The proportion choosing cremation in these countries continues to rise.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF CHOOSING CREMATION?
During the past decades, more and more people throughout the Western world have chosen cremation. What has moved them to make this choice? The reasons are many and varied:
- OPENING MORE VARIED POSSIBILITIES FOR HOLDING A LEAVE-TAKING CEREMONY – spreading the ashes at sea/ over land/ from an airplane in a place that was significant for the diseased, burial of the ashes, storing the ashes in an urn at home or in a columbarium.
- THE ADVANTAGE OF MOBILITY – One can easily take a funeral urn wherever one lives, even overseas, especially in these times of increased mobility.
- A PRIVATE BURIAL AND MEMORIAL SITE can be set up in your backyard, and the funeral urn can be stored or buried there.
- ECONOMY – There is no need for a monument or a gravesite.
- PERSONAL/SPIRITUAL PHILOSOPHY – A significant number of people (and not just believers in esoteric religions) choose cremation because it is both aesthetic and modest, reflecting the way they lived their lives.
- CONCERN FOR THE ENVIRONMENT – cremation is the proper ecological solution. The process is clean and does not cause pollution; it does not waste precious land resources for burial (especially in light of the scarcity of land in our small country). The process also helps prevent the pollution of our water sources that is caused by burial above the aquifers and other water sources.
- RELIGIOUS PLURALISM – Cremation is suitable for secular people and atheists, as well as practitioners of religions and religious sects whose belief prescribes cremation.
- SIMPLICITY AND CONVENIENCE – The aesthetics and convenience of working according to the family’s own time schedule. Choosing the times both for the ceremony and for the process. Conducting the event in a stately and climate controlled reception hall, suitable for any time of the year.
WHAT CAN BE DONE WITH THE ASHES?
Unlike burial, which offers only one option (interment of the body in the ground), cremation opens up various possibilities for the person and the family to take an active part in the continuity of the process. Here are four basic options (there are, of course, many others) that are the most common practices:
- Scattering the ashes in nature in a place that the deceased loved
- Saving the ashes in a funeral urn in the family’s home
- Storing the ashes in a columbarium, where there is usually a hall for conducting memorial ceremonies.
- Burying the ashes in the ground, usually in a cemetery, including the setting of a monument
WHAT IS THE CONNECTION BETWEEN CREMATION AND THE PROBLEM OF LAND SCARCITY?
It is a well-known fact that the State of Israel does not have great land resources. We try to protect this precious resource as much as we can, and proof of the process is the intense exploitation of every dunam, accompanied by the rising prices for land in the country. Not everyone is aware of this fact, but burial in the ground is one of the biggest consumers of the land. Furthermore, land that has been apportioned for burial cannot be reassigned in the future for land on which to build or for dwellings. Thus, isolated cemeteries are scattered over the country, leading to the rerouting of highways and the search for other inefficient solutions to by-pass the cemeteries.
IS THE BURNING OF HUMAN BODIES PERMITTED IN ISRAEL?
The legal opinions that we have received unequivocally determine that cremation is not forbidden. On the contrary, there are many laws supporting the idea in practice, such as the Basic Law Protecting Freedom of Enterprise, the Law of Alternative Burial, the Basic Law Protecting the Dignity of the Individual and His/Her Freedom, the Environmental Protection Laws, and others.
ARE YOU IN COMPETITION WITH THE CHEVRA KADDISHA?
First of all, we are not “in competition” with anyone. We are a company that provides services and specializes in individualizing these services for our clients. Furthermore, some of the services we provide and the ceremonies we conduct are held in cooperation with the Chevra Kaddisha, and on their sites.
Practically speaking, most of the interment services in Israel are concentrated in the hands of approximately 600 different Chevra Kaddisha burial societies that are organized as associations and administered as non-profit organizations. Of these 600, around 120 are large organizations (the rest are Chevra Kaddishas in very small locations, mainly moshavim and kibbutzim), and they do not function as one body.
It is important to note that we do not regard the Chevra Kaddisha as competitors, rather as colleagues with whom we seek to cooperate.
IS IT LEGAL? IS PRIVATE BURIAL LEGAL?
With no exceptions, all activities of Aley Shalechet are carried out according to the law. Private burial, secular burial, and burial according to the requirements of the family and/or the will of the deceased are legal and permitted according to the Burial Law and its extensions regarding alternate secular burial. Those who are interested in a broader answer on the subject are invited to turn to us at any time.