If you grew up in an observant Jewish household, you might know everything there is to know about Jewish funeral traditions such as sitting Shiva. However, even if you're familiar with these customs regarding death and grief, you may need a refresher if you are heading to a Jewish funeral for the first time.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s a Jewish Casket?
- How Much Do Jewish Caskets Typically Cost?
- What Are the Different Types of Jewish Caskets?
- What Traditions Are Associated With Jewish Caskets?
Whether you’re helping a friend or a loved one navigating the difficult realities of burying a family member or a distant relative who wants to help those you love, knowing the different traditions regarding Jewish caskets can go a long way. If you’re curious about where to start your research, here are some basics to get you on your way.
What’s a Jewish Casket?
A Jewish casket looks very similar to non-Jewish caskets. If you were to lift the lid and look inside, however, you’ll see several differences between Jewish caskets and those used by other cultures.
What are the requirements?
For a casket to be considered Jewish or kosher, there are several rules that casket makers much follow. First, no casket can be built on the Sabbath, the day of rest in Judaism. No work can be done on Sabbath. Secondly, the entire casket must be made of biodegradable materials. This means there can be no metal anywhere on or in the casket including screws or hinges.
Most caskets have minimal outer adornment keeping with the tradition that all men are equal in death. These caskets may also have a Star of David on the outside of the casket.
Because the deceased must touch the earth, some casket makers will drill holes in the bottom of the casket to allow dirt from the burial plot to enter up through the casket. If holes are not drilled, then the family must place dirt from the cemetery or from Israel inside the casket with their loved one. The inside of the casket should not be lined with bedding. The only things allowed (aside from the deceased) are some dirt from Israel and a prayer shawl.
What do they look like?
On the outside, Jewish caskets look much like any other casket. Many are simple and elegant with rounded edges and corners, polished wood, pallbearer handles, and a hinged lid. Some, on the other hand, are very basic with no handles, polish, or edging and a very basic lid that sits on top.
How Much Do Jewish Caskets Typically Cost?
Like any casket, the cost for Jewish caskets differs significantly depending on the style, embellishments, type of lining, and wood used. On the more budget-friendly end, you can find a simple, traditional pine box for around $400.
On the other end, however, some of the most elegant caskets can easily cost around $14,000 and higher. When it comes to Jewish caskets, almost anyone may find a casket that fits their wishes and budget.
What Are the Different Types of Jewish Caskets?
Even though caskets must be crafted from wood and contain no metal whatsoever, this rule hasn’t limited the creative mind of casket makers. You can find numerous types of caskets from the simplest versions created in pine to caskets crafted with the finest of woods available.
1. Pine box
A pine box casket is the most traditional of all Jewish caskets and is used widely by many Orthodox and traditional observant families. The beauty in this box is its purposeful lack of adornment. While expertly crafted, the casket itself is made entirely of pine.
Most of these are simple wooden boxes with a flat top. Some come with rails for pallbearers, though most do not. Many pine boxes have holes drilled in the bottom to allow dirt to come up through the casket to touch the body. This simple option will always be the most budget-friendly of all casket prices. Another benefit is that you can easily buy pine caskets online.
2. Casket with straw bedding
Straw bedding is used in most simple caskets such as pine, poplar, or redwood boxes. This allows a minimal barrier between the person who is laid to rest, the box, and the ground.
Straw bedding caskets are ideal for families who are orthodox, conservative, or strictly observant and want to follow the orthodox manner of burial. This option can be added to most any casket, from the simplest box to the most elaborate casket.
3. Crepe lining
If you prefer a more stylish lining than the traditional straw, you might consider a crepe lining.
Usually white or beige, this type of lining comes with more elaborate caskets. If you desire a fancier casket, such as those with a hinged lid, you’ll be able to add crepe lining.
4. Embroidered lining
Caskets with crepe or linen lining can be personalized through embroidery on the fabric on the hinged lid of the casket. This is a popular choice for many who desire to add special touches to their loved one’s caskets.
Though embroidery can be customized, many casket makers offer the following premade options:
- “Mother” with roses or flowers
- “Daughter” with flowers
- “Shalom” with vines
- Star of David
Traditional Jewish funerals do not have open caskets, so the embroidery serves solely as a special touch from the family to their deceased loved ones.
For families that prefer an even greener burial than the simple pine wood box allows, there are a number of “green cemeteries” that allow the burial of the deceased in wicker baskets or simple shrouds, as is the tradition in Israel.
If a green burial is chosen with a shroud, there will be no casket and the body of the deceased will be lowered into the burial plot as-is.
6. Solid oak
The better the wood you choose, the more expensive the casket will be.
There will also be fancier decorations to accompany the higher pricing, but keep this in mind and shop according to budget. Solid oak caskets have a beautiful hue whether or not they are presented with an unfinished exterior or finished and polished to a high shine.
Redwood is a deep-hued wood with a dark, lustrous stain. For those who want a casket that will serve as a beautiful, final resting place, redwood caskets would be a good option.
Caskets made of redwood can be as simple as the traditional “pine box” or made to look fancier. Redwood is a nicer wood than pine and you may prefer a casket with a rounded lid, embellished sides, and pallbearer handles. As with any Jewish casket, this will be made entirely of wood, and no metal elements.
Mahogany is also favored for its lustrous quality and royal appearance.
When stained, mahogany caskets are built with plush inner linings and outside carvings to match the beauty of the wood.
What Traditions Are Associated With Jewish Caskets?
As with any aspect of Jewish life, there are customs and traditions around funerals and caskets as well. Here are several of the most prominent.
Caskets must be created from materials that are completely biodegradable. This concept comes from the scripture in Genesis 3:19 where it says, “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Caskets must be made of materials that allow a body to naturally decompose and return to the earth. Metal caskets prevent this from occurring and, therefore, are not considered Jewish or kosher.
Wood is the most commonly used material for Jewish caskets, but there is no specific regulation regarding the materials that can be used other than the requirement that it must be biodegradable. Another example of a biodegradable casket is one made of wicker.
The most orthodox or conservative Jewish caskets have no bedding inside.
This is to allow the body of the deceased contact with the dirt as quickly as possible as the wood degrades. As such, there should be no barriers between the body of the deceased and the ground beneath them.
Holes drilled or dirt inside
Because bodies are to return to dust, many casket makers will drill holes on the bottom of the casket to allow dirt to filter into the casket to touch the body.
If no holes are drilled, families will usually place dirt from the cemetery or from Israel inside the casket with the body of their loved one. Either of these options fulfills the tradition of returning to dirt.
Little to no embellishments
One of the many Jewish funeral traditions surrounding caskets is that they should be plain and lacking adornment.
As mentioned above, this comes from the belief that all men are equal upon death. Since all are equal, then there is no reason for a heavily embellished casket. The one exception to this rule is the allowance of a wooden Star of David which is usually placed on the foot-end of the casket.
In addition to a lack of embellishment, it is generally believed that the caskets themselves should be of a simple design.
Most will be shaped with curved corners and rounded edges, and some will have a layered effect. Beyond this, however, there is little else in terms of design to be found on Jewish caskets.
Honoring Your Loved One
The best way to honor someone you love is by following their beliefs and traditions when it comes to burial. Putting their wishes and traditions first shows tremendous respect and love for the one you lost.
- “Guide to Burying a Loved One in Israel.” Resources, ITIM, 2020. itim.org.il/en/itim-guide-to-burying-a-loved-one-in-israel/
- Guttman, Fred. “How Jewish Burials are Actually Green Burials, Too.” Death and Mourning, Reform Judaism, 24 July 2014, reformjudaism.org/blog/2017/07/24/how-jewish-burials-are-actually-green-burials-too
- Fishkoff, Sue. “First Green Jewish Cemetery Opens.” Lifestyle, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 28 March 2010, jta.org/2010/03/28/lifestyle/first-green-jewish-cemetery-opens
- “Types of Jewish Burials.” Burial and Cemetery, Shiva, 2020, shiva.com/learning-center/burial-and-cemetery/types-of-jewish-burials/
- Wolfson, Ron. “The Casket, or Aron.” Mourn, My Jewish Learning, 2020, myjewishlearning.com/article/the-casket-or-aron/