Do Jewish Burials Require a Coffin?

Dear Rabbi:

My cousin who is dying of pancreatic cancer keeps talking about wanting to be buried without a coffin. Don't Jewish funerals require a plain wooden box?

Thanks for the favor of your reply, Orna

Dear Orna:

1. Your cousin is talking about a trend toward what is being termed "natural burials." Of which the Jewish practice of a bio-degrading wooden box with no metal nails or hinges is a long-standing practice. Today it is becoming possible to return to the even more traditional Jewish practice of being buried in just a soft white shroud covered in a burlap bag, as I saw some years ago on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Israel.

Such burials are now legal in many parts of the USA and a wide variety of countries, not to mention in places where there are indigenous peoples like Jews doing our practices since time immemorial (pardon the pun). Modesty for the met [corpse] is a Jewish principle, as is returning the body to [nourish] the earth, aka, renewing the cycle of life with our remains. 

2. While serving as a guest rabbi in 2009 and 2010 in Oregon, I learned that River View cemetery in Portland is among a growing number of sites that allow such anywhere in the cemetery. They have designed and purchased special boards on which a met can be placed for lowering and burial without a casket, allow burial without grave liners, etc. Their intent is for burials without a casket (but they allow folks to follow their normal religious practices. River View's "normal" model was described as placing straw on the bottom of the grave, and straw on top of the met if there is no casket, with the rationale that people don't want to throw dirt on top of a body. (A more conventional undertaker once told me, "Rabbi, it's nicer to call it earth, some people don't appreciate the image that they are dirtying the new casket." River View also suggests adding compost material (made of leaves and other organic material) before the dirt to help decomposition of the body. Most also place some earth from Israel to more intimately connect our substance to our ancestors' and various traditions (earth from Yisrael provided here in the USA by Jewish undertakers, or this practice calls to you, import your own in a baggie, I suppose. I keep small stones from Israel in my study to bring when visiting graves.) 

3. The Jewish Museum in Jerusalem had what looked like a permanent exhibit on the gal (reveal of stones placed by those covering a corpse of one who died in the desert) in ancient times. After time, insects, small animals, etc. removed the flesh, the bones would be reclaimed to be ritually placed in the family cave (as in the bones of Joseph story in the Bible). Small clay houses have been found that would have held the bones in the caves. One also can visit such sites and see the ancient Jewish ossuary boxes (maybe 18" x 12-24") no only in museums, but also in burial caves in Israel. I recall doing so in southern Israel.  

4. I asked my dad's (z"l) old friend about the concrete liners, he runs a Jewish funeral home here. It is required by all the local cemeteries frequented for Jewish burials in order to the cite flat enough to prevent headstones from falling over and to maintain a uniform shape to the land for the lawn mowers. Some states require this as a law, Pennsylvania does not. While non-Jewish burials standardly have solid concrete grave lines, knowledgeable Jewish families request perforated liners and have only a bottom, not top liner (though some cemeteries require both top and bottom). The Sufi cemetery in our area does not use concrete grave liners, for example, nor do private cemeteries typically that are widely found on farms and estates.

5. Interstate transport of remains in the USA has special requirements. Bodies of those not diagnosed to have died of communicable diseases need not be embalmed for interstate transport, but then must be in hermetically sealed containers. As a rabbi I have had to intervene with less-knowledgeable undertakers on this after to ensure Jewish practice of no-embalming save when a risk to life, is honored. Here are the national (USA) interstate transport  Health and Human Services regulations

6. Does your friend know about Tahara - the beautifully spiritual Jewish way of preparing a corpse and the powerful Jewish spiritual practices for those who are in their dying process? A full guide to dying, funeral and mourning practices can be found in my book Living Jewish Life Cycle. Some components also appear on this site

with blessings and appreciation for your question, 

Rabbi Goldie Milgram