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soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Worship, Conversion, Intermarriage (5/12)
Section - Question 11.6.5: Death and Burial: What are Jewish funeral customs?

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                                  Answer:
   
   The following is a summary of Jewish funeral customs:
     * Funerals should take place as soon as possible, often done on the
       day of death or the following day.
     * Autopsies are not routinely done unless required by law.
     * Cremation is not allowed. This is because traditional Jews are
       prohibited to desecrate a body by artificial means. According to
       Rabbi Maurice Lamm "Even if the deceased willed cremation, his
       wishes must be ignored to observe the will of our 'Father in
       Heaven."
     * Burial is a plain wooden casket with no metal, that includes no
       metal handles or even nails. They are put together with wooden
       pegs. Actually, Jewish tradition is to bury the person without a
       coffin; if a coffin is mandatory by local law, tradition dictates
       choosing a simple one. As Rabbi JB Soloveitchik put it, the
       deceased can't appreciate the fine furniture. Better you spend
       that money getting your synagogue a new pew!
     * The body is clothed in a white linen shroud and not street
       clothes. Shrouds are sewn without knots, and are a multiple piece
       garment. In earlier times, the sisterhoods or women's auxiliaries
       used to make shrouds for their community; this practice may still
       occur in traditional communities. Today, virtually all (Jewish)
       mortuaries carry shrouds, the prices vary.
       This is done because of a rabbinic decree of around 1800 years
       ago. People were spending more than they could afford on funeral
       expenses because no one wanted to show the deceased, typically a
       parent, less honor than others showed their loved ones. So, Rabban
       Gamliel, the "prince" of the Jewish community of the time (and
       therefore his estate would be quite wealthy), demanded that he be
       buried in simple white linen, and that this become the custom for
       everyone. He patterned this clothing after that worn by the High
       Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur. If G-d asks the High Priest to
       enter the Holy of Holies and confront the Divine Presence in
       simple white linen garments, it seems fitting to do the same when
       preparing someone to meet their Maker. To this very day, we bury
       people in a hat, shirt (kittel), pants, belt -- all of plain white
       linen, if a man, his tallis, and simplified (and ritualized)
       shoes. No pockets, since you can't take it with you. And the belt
       isn't knotted, for Kabbalistic reasons.
     * Objects are not put into the casket as we come into this world
       with nothing and so we leave with nothing. All of us are equal in
       the world to come. Men are attired in a Tallis (prayer shawl).
       
     Note: This include pet remains (yes, we've gotten the question of
     people wanting to bury their pet remains with them). If you must
     have your pet that close to you, consider putting the ashes besides
     your casket (if this is acceptable to all parties).
     * A Shomer, guard, remains with the body from time of death through
       to the burial.
     * After the ritual funeral, the casket is put into the ground and
       the mourners and those attending the funeral fill the grave.
     * A holy society (the Chevra Kaddisha) takes charge of a body at
       death. They clean and bathe the body, perform a ritual of pouring
       water over the corpse (called Tahorah), dress the body in the
       shroud (Tachrich) and put the body into the casket.
     * Once the funeral is over, all attending ritually wash their hands
       as they leave the cemetery.
     * Condolences are made at the home of the mourners.
     * At the funeral, an article of clothing is torn by the direct
       morners. This is called kriah. It is usually a lapel of a dress or
       shirt, a tie or sometimes a black ribbon that is placed over the
       heart.
     * Flowers are normally not sent, for the following reasons:
          + Simplicity. The tradition in Judaism is to keep funerals as
            simple as possible, to make everyone equal in death.
          + Tradition. Although flowers are not prohibited, the custom
            arose over time of not sending flowers, and making
            contributions instead. In ancient days, the Talmud informs
            us, fragrant flowers and spices were used at the funeral to
            offset the odor of the decaying body. Today, this is no
            longer essential and thus, many Jews do not use them at
            Jewish funerals at all. Most feel it is much better to honor
            the deceased by making a contribution to a synagogue or
            hospital, or to a medical research association for the
            disease which afflicted the deceased. This method of tribute
            is more lasting and meaningful.
       
   There is a reason for the plain wooden casket and linen shroud. First,
   it demonstrates that everyone is equal in death--the rich and the
   poor. Secondly, it frees the bereived family from any sense of duty to
   spend more than they can afford.
   
   A note with respect to cremation: For non-traditional Jews, the answer
   with respect to cremation is more difficult. While frowned upon by
   Jewish law, liberal Jews have wide opinions concerning cremation. On
   the negative side, cremation flaunts the death of our co-religionists
   in the Holocaust. They were burned (cremated) to ashes against their
   desired will. It is difficult to understand why a post-Holocaust Jew
   would wish his/her body to be so destroyed after death, as if giving
   the Nazis another small victory in obliterating the remnant of our
   people. On the other hand, the great Rabban Gamliel (Moed Kattan 27a)
   wrote the ruling that Jews subscribe to today. There should be respect
   of the dead and not undo financial burden placed upon his/her family.
   While he was a prominent and wealthy man, the leader of the Jewish
   community two millennia ago, he chose to be buried in a plain casket
   (substitute cheap) and dressed in simple linen/shroud (substituted
   cheap garment as opposed to burying in an expensive suite.) His
   rational is solid in as much as funeral costs today are very high.
   Cremation is a way to substantially reduce the financial burden on the
   family. This is in keeping with Rabban Gamliel's position. But even if
   there is cremation, the cremains should be buried. First, it conforms
   to the Jewish view of returning the ashes/dust to the primordial earth
   and second, it gives the family a site to direct their mourning. Many
   Jews find great comfort coming to the graves of parents and relatives
   at special times of the year to pay homage and respect. Scattering of
   ashes or leaving grandma in the hall closet does not have the same
   sanctifying power.

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