Questions About the
Traditions of Jewish Funerals
● Does a Jewish funeral always have to take place on the day of death or even within 24 hours?
● Is the use of all wood coffins a Jewish law or a custom?
● Are funerals permitted on the second days of the Jewish festivals?
Does a Jewish funeral always have to take place on the day of death or even within 24 hours?
The rule or general custom which should be followed is to schedule a funeral to take place without ‘undo’ delay after the demise. Therefore, because most chapels make it possible to make these arrangements most funerals are held on the day following a death. There are circumstances that may nevertheless prevent quick interment which may not be avoided or overcome. The most common are: Sabbath or Traditional Holiday restrictions ~ Waiting for a mourner, as is defined by Jewish Law, to arrive for the funeral ~ A cemetery not permitting same or next day burial due to union contract limitations or management rules ~ A medical facility or medical examiner not issuing the required death certificate or transfer documents on time ~ The additional period of time required for interstate shipping from a place of death or to the place of burial which may even be overseas ~ The inability to locate the legal next of kin or an executor/executrix of a Last Will and Testament to authorize and take responsibility for the funeral. The staff at the United Hebrew Community of New York knowledgeable in Jewish Law and tradition in concert with their participating licensed funeral directors would automatically use their professional expertise to counsel a family and expedite a funeral. Usually, concerned advocates can overcome most obstacles with the least amount of anxiety for a family.
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Is the use of all wood coffins a Jewish law or a custom?
Unbeknown to most people and many contemporary Jewish authorities, there is no known written Traditional Jewish Law that requires all wood coffin construction. On the contrary, in centuries past, the goal or criteria found in Jewish text was to purchase the lowest price coffin regardless of how it was made. A letter written in 1965 to Hillel Jacobson, Executive Director of the United Hebrew Community of New York from Horav Kalman Avraham Goldberg ZTL, Rabbi of the organization quotes the following: That Harav Hagoan Rabbi Eliyahu Henkin ZTL, the President of Agudas Harabonim and Ezras Torah in New York, and a recognized and leading Talmudic scholar of his time could not find such a written Jewish Law and that nails or metal are permitted to be used. The entire letter and its English translation can be read on this site. This is not to say that the present custom originally initiated in New York should not be followed. Until 1963 most plain coffins and caskets were manufactured with both visible and covered metal nails or screws as well as metal fasteners that were cleverly hidden by wood plugs. The new accepted custom is to only use coffins and caskets made entirely from wood, glue and dowels and void of all metal. It was originated at the request of a group of Brooklyn’s Flatbush Rabbis and Rabbi Samson Weiss the Executive Director of Yeshiva University. The agreement was endorsed by the “Rav”, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik TZL, Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Issac Elchanon Theological Seminary. The standard was accepted by New York’s Jewish Funeral Directors and soon after in much of the United States. It became the custom that is now commonly followed by most Jewish communities. All United Hebrew Community of New York members are entitled to a plain traditional wood coffin constructed without nails as a free membership benefit. (See explanations of benefits) With few exceptions, chapels that are known to serve a broad cross section of the diverse American Jewish community overwhelmingly stock their casket showrooms with a wide range of “all wood” products. Chapel owners or management may offer, at their own discretion in each chapel, different versions of what is commonly called a plain coffin. The simplest coffin is constructed from 6 boards of unfinished pine or other soft woods without any adornments. There are, however, other versions they may be more elaborate and more expensive. Our non surveyed opinion is, that in most chapels a basic plain wood coffin costs approximate $600.00 while wood caskets generally range in price from a low of approximately $1,300.00 to a high that may even surpass $10,000.00. Some of these same chapels also display some metal caskets and outer concrete vaults.
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Are funerals permitted on the second days of the Jewish festivals?
Orthodox Jews who follow the Lithuanian customs of Eastern Europe abide by the restrictions set forth by Horav Hagoan Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Reb Moshe, as he was best known, wrote a letter to Hillel Jacobson, the Executive Director of the United Hebrew Community of New York, in 1971 that second day funerals are entirely prohibited lest people violate holiday travel and other religious restrictions. The entire letter and its English translation can be read on this site. In the Jewish calendar there are six days of the year that comprise the Second Days. They are the second and last day of Passover, the second day of Succot, Simchat Torah, and the second day of Shevuot. Both Chasidic and Sefardi Jews follow other customs and rules originating from their country or city of origin. They, too, strictly enforce who is permitted to attend a funeral. Normally, they allow second day burials with only the minimum number of people who are required and who know the religious constrains to attend. All agree, however, that funerals are not permitted on the second day of Rosh Hashana. Nevertheless, all but a rare few Jewish owned chapels are closed on the second days. Most chapels that do not close are open for regular business. Also, most Jewish cemeteries are also open for business, as usual. Their union labor contracts do not stipulate that the second days are holidays. Consequently, most non-traditional, unaffiliated Jews schedule second day holiday funerals. Occasionally, the second day of the Holiday is also the Sabbath thus automatically prohibiting all Jewish funerals. A charter, constitution or the general religious standards of any group or family can define when and how a burial can take place in their lawfully owned cemetery grounds. Synagogues, Chevros, Societies and others who own parcels of cemetery land can and have legally restricted burials on the second days. Recently, some New York Jewish cemeteries requested that a form be signed by society and synagogue parcel owners should they want to “officially” restrict second day burials.
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