Now in Style: Traditional Jewish Burial

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Now that Jews across America have adopted non-Jewish burial customs — elaborate, indestructable caskets, embalming, above-ground burial (mausoleums), even cremation (a custom first practiced on Jewish dead in Central Europe, roughly 65 years ago) — here’s the latest custom for non-Jews: Jewish burial, of course.

At Greensprings… They must be buried in biodegradable caskets without linings or metal ornamentation. The cemetery suggests locally harvested woods, wicker or cloth shrouds. Concrete or steel burial vaults are not allowed.

“This is just a dust-to-dust approach to funerals.”

Needless to say, I’m overstating it. At Greensprings, they don’t allow standing tombstones, either. No one does a taharah (purification ritual). And, surely the least familiar aspect, from our perspective: “a plot costs $500, plus a $350 fee to dig the grave.”

But it is interesting that a simple pine box and cloth shrouds are now coming into vogue.

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10 Responses

  1. Nachum says:

    So in other words, Israelis pay, much as they pay for healthcare: They just have it taken directly out of their paycheck in the form of taxes. The government doesn’t just print the money

    R’ Menken, you are implying that the cost is unfamiliar because it is low, not high.

    On the other hand, “a custom first practiced on Jewish dead in Central Europe, roughly 65 years ago” is a really uncalled for and nasty aside. Those who cremate, I’m sure, usually have the best motives. Comparing them to Nazis is just wrong. After all, the Nazis buried many of the Jews they killed too.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Moshe, I stand corrected. I was going by what my mother said – she didn’t tell me it was only for a year.

  3. Pinchas Giller says:

    I was once on a Chevre Kadisha in a very small community. The requirement was that the participants be orthodox, shomer shabbat, etc. There were not many of us. At one point we began to get calls every night. It seems that an enterprising funeral director was promoting taharah as a “spiritual” option and getting quite a few takers among unaffiliated Jews.

    We didn’t want to say no, but our resources were being stretched to exhaustion, out every night and taharas are stressful. I recommended that we open the practice of to reliable non-orthodox. After all, the taharah was a preparation for techiyat ha-meitim, mainly. You might not want to eat in the house of somebody who wasn’t otherwise kosher, but everybody dies. If a Jew wanted to lend a hand, why not?

    It took about two years but eventually we got a teshuvah assenting to this position. Later a member of the community died in very tragic circumstances. There was hardly a taharah, because the meit had been so compromised. It was very harrowing. One member of the chug, who was a non-practicing reform rabbi who had become, in his personal practice, religious for all practical purposes (Shabbat, Kashrut, Mikveh, Orthodox shul membership) took us aside and recommended that we promise to reveal nothing about the circumstances fo the taharah to the outside world (all of the relevant parties have since, sadly, passed on themselves). This reform rabbi had the coolest head in the circumstances.

    So, the more popular this becomes, the more that chevre kashishas will have to step up. Are they going to be willing to act from people for whom this is, I don’t know, a fashion statement? Will they let the heterodox into the process? In the communities of the midwest, for instance, I don’t think that there are enough orthodox Jews to do taharas for all of the conservative and reform.

  4. David says:

    I think because of the awe that surrounds death, it is an area were most people are more traditional-minded, and lest apt to rock the boat and experiment.
    For example, while there are many Jews who have no problem with Shabbos or Yom Tov weddings, I doubt you’d find anyone among the affiliated who would be willing to have a Shabbos funeral.

  5. Moshe says:

    Here’s some information I found googling about the burial fees:
    From here: http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com/archives5763/VY63features2.htm

    *Israeli citizens and even tourists who pass away while in Israel do not have to pay for a burial plot. Bituach Leumi (National Insurance), Israel’s “Social Security,” pays the NIS 5,700 (about $1,140) burial costs. This covers all the basic costs of the funeral and the grave plot. The monument stone is handled by separate contractors and is not part of the burial or its costs. It must be arranged separately by the family of the deceased.

    Chevra Kadishas cannot charge a citizen for a burial plot or for burial costs. They may charge a citizen who wants to reserve a specific plot. The cost of this service was set by a law passed last Av by the Knesset at approximately NIS 11,000 ($2,200).

    Typically, one spouse passes away and gets his or her grave for free, paid by the Bituach Leumi. The surviving spouse than purchases an adjoining grave for him or herself. Mr. Shachor says that 90 percent of all burials on Har Hamenuchos involve couples. The new law also requires the Chevra Kadisha to save the graves on both sides of the deceased for 90 days, to give the spouse and relatives a chance to purchase it.*

    So from what I can see, the cost is 11,000 shekels — not a lifetime fee of 900 shekels per month – rather, 900 shekels per month for ONE YEAR, and the 11,000 shekels is meant to offset the cost of the Chevra Kadisha in developing and maintaining the cemetary.

    That makes more sense.

  6. tzvi says:

    We too used to have fancy funerals before the Rabbis decreed they should become simple. How long before they come out with takanos for weddings as well?

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Yaakov Menken: And, surely the least familiar aspect, from our perspective: “a plot costs $500, plus a $350 fee to dig the grave.”

    Ori: What’s so unfamiliar about that? My father recently was buried in Israel, where burials are supposed to be government funded. True, his burial plot didn’t cost anything – but to hold the spot above him for my mother, Chevra Kadisha gets 900 NIS (= $200 approx.) a month.

  8. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    For informational purposes only, see Tosfos Yomtov Psochim 4:9 regarding cremation.

  9. Holy Hyrax says:

    I have always hated the burial vaults, but in L.A. they are required.

  10. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “But it is interesting that a simple pine box and cloth shrouds are now coming into vogue”

    This is an interesting article. Rabbonim sometimes have their work cut out for them convincing some Jews to chose a traditional burial for their relatives; hopefully, those who favor non-traditional burials will be affected by this trend. But let us hope that all types of burials will be out of vouge soon. Bila hamaves lanetzach…