jewish Funeral Guide

Preparation for Jewish Burial

Casket - ארון

CoffinAron / ארון. After the body has been dressed it is usually placed in the burial casket (coffin). In the past, widespread Jewish custom has been not to use caskets, but to carry the deceased in a funeral stretcher and bury the body in a simple cloth covering. Burial without a casket is typical in Israel with the exception of military and state funerals. However, the casket is common in many countries and mandatory in many others. Jewish caskets must be made completely of wood, which will naturally decompose and permit the body to return to its source, thus fulfilling the “dust unto dust” requirement. Although many rabbinical authorities permit caskets that are reinforced with metal nails, the custom is to use wooden pegs as fasteners.

The wood of the casket may be polished or natural. Sometimes, caskets are adorned with a Magen David / מגן דוד - a Star of David, which is also made completely of wood, but a coffin without any ornaments is preferable. The type of wood used and the finish applied to the casket is not important. It is far better to donate money to charity in the name of the deceased, than to purchase a fancy casket. The deceased will benefit more from a donation in his name and honor, than from a beautified casket. Similarly, there is no need for a plush interior.

It is the custom of many to include in the casket earth from the Land of Israel and say: “He will atone for His land and His people / וכפר אדמתו עמו” (Deuteronomy 32:43). The deceased is then placed inside the casket face up, as one who is sleeping. The limbs of the deceased are straightened and the hands are opened* to symbolize that nobody can carry material possessions into the next world. The custom is, therefore, that no personal items are placed into the coffin.

*Man comes into this world empty-handed, and empty-handed he leaves it. In the course of the Havdalah / הבדלה ceremony that marks the transition from the day of rest to the busy week of work, we look twice at the reflection of the Havdalah flame on our fingertips. The first time the fingers are curled and the second time they are straightened. The symbolism of this custom is that man arrives into this world as a newborn baby with clenched fists, as if he was trying to grab as much as possible. However, after one hundred and twenty years the man departs with his fingers stretched, for he has to release all the wealth he amassed.