"For dust you are, and to dust you shall return." — Genesis 3:19
Taking inspiration from the above scripture, the ancient Jewish burial tradition found the deceased lowered into the ground without a casket, shrouded in a simple cloth or burlap covering. The person’s life cycle was viewed as complete, and the body was lovingly surrendered and returned back to the earth from which it came. This coffinless burial custom is still practiced in Israel today, with the exception of state and military funerals.
Simplicity and Democracy in Death
The casketless funeral was instituted by rabbis to reflect the fact that human beings are created equal in both life and death. The simple burial coupled with the wearing of a plain, white shroud also acts as a financial equalizer, saving the bereaved family from having to spend more on funeral costs than is affordable.
The spirit of these ancient traditions is kept alive today by many of the Jewish faith. Embalming, cremation and entombment in a mausoleum are prohibited. The body must be buried in the ground. Because a casket is mandatory in many western countries, Jews retain the intent of the original custom by ensuring the “aron” (Yiddish for “coffin”) is made completely from simple, decomposable wood. As the coffin decomposes over time, it allows the body to return to its source. Often there are holes in the bottom to facilitate rapid decomposition, and Jewish families may request perforated or partial grave liners instead of concrete so that the coffin makes contact with the earth.
The interior of the coffin is typically as plain and unadorned as the exterior, lacking plush lining. It’s traditional for the body to be buried with only a prayer shawl and sometimes soil from Israel, but without personal effects or mementos. The deceased is clothed in a white linen shroud and placed inside the casket face-up with open hands, symbolizing the idea that we come into the world with nothing and we leave with nothing; another reinforcement of the equality of all people.
Jewish tradition prohibits open-casket funerals, viewing them as disrespectful to the deceased. You won’t find flowers adorning a Jewish casket since they denote a more joyous occasion.
Reclaiming Traditional Burial Rites
The growing popularity of natural, or green, burials is allowing Jewish people to reclaim the ancient tradition of casketless burial. Low-impact burials are desirable for many people who prefer an eco-friendly, less toxic alternative that reduces energy and resource consumption.
Bodies are lowered into the ground using a specially designed biodegradable board and are allowed direct contact with the earth, thanks to the absence of a coffin or grave liner. This is in full accordance with the Jewish principle of returning the body to nourish the earth and renew the cycle of life.
According to the Green Burial Council (GBC), "the number of GBC-approved providers (funeral homes, cemeteries and product providers) in North America has grown from 1 in 2006 to more then 300 today, operating in 41 states and 6 provinces of Canada.” As the demand for environmentally friendly burials grows and more cemeteries set aside land for green, coffinless burials, people of the Jewish faith can hope to enjoy a return to the sacred traditional burial rites.