It’s September, the time for the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These holidays call up mortality issues as congregants ponder the meaning of life and the fleeting nature of our time on earth as the days grow shorter.
On Yom Kippur, Jews participate in a special memorial service called Yizkor, held specifically to remember deceased loved ones. Yizkor is the Hebrew word for remembrance.
Many non-observant Jews don’t know the religion’s traditions, but the rituals often become important after there’s a death. Estate planning attorneys who work with Jewish families may find this background to be helpful.
Why Jewish funerals emphasize modesty and simplicity
Whether rich or poor, observant Jews are traditionally buried in inexpensive linen garments in a plain pine box or a burial shroud. This tradition was started in the second century C.E. by a decree from Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel II.
At the time, families poured enormous resources into extravagant funeral services. Those of modest means could not afford to pay for the luxurious burial arrangements and feasts put on by their well-off neighbors. The universal adoption of simple burial garments and modest caskets was designed to protect the poor from being embarrassed about not being able to afford a lavish funeral.
The white burial garments, called tachrichim, bring to mind the clothing worn by the High Priest of the Temple. Everyone becomes equal in death, and everyone is like a High Priest. This practice confirms a fundamental belief in human equality.
The word kosher, usually applied to food and its preparation, means something meets the requirements of Jewish law. Synonyms include proper, correct, fit, legitimate, acceptable, genuine, and orthodox. The term is freely applied to caskets. The elements of a proper Jewish casket are:
- The casket must be plain and simple, and made of totally biodegradable materials, traditionally a soft wood such as pine or poplar;
- The interior of the casket should also be plain, with no linings, pillows or other materials;
- No metal or plastic parts, such as nails, screws, hinges, or handles, are allowed. They are not considered biodegradable;
- Any glue used must be vegetable-based, not animal-based;
- Holes are drilled in the bottom to hasten decomposition and fulfill the mandate in Genesis 3:19, “from dust you come and to dust you will return.”
Green burial casket models made of willow, wicker, sea grass, bamboo, and other easily biodegradable materials with no metal parts are also acceptable. Less traditional and non-observant Jews may find these attractive alternatives to the plain pine box.
Other Ritual Elements
In a February 2013 AAEPA blog post, I explained several other important Jewish funeral traditions:
- Why burial ideally takes place within 24 hours of death.
- Why Jewish burial equals green burial.
- Why you don’t send flowers to a Jewish funeral.
- Why viewings are avoided.
- Shiva, the intense seven-day period of mourning after a funeral.
A Jewish Funeral Planning Checklist
Many funeral directors provide families with lists of 50 or more things that must be done and decisions to be made as a way to encourage pre-need planning. The number of people to notify, expenses to pay, and contacts to be made can be overwhelming if there’s been no advance planning nor information gathered.
I created a variation on the “50 Things” list that includes Jewish elements for funeral planning. This list is available as a free PDF download that you may use to help your Jewish client families who may need funeral planning guidance after a death. Visit www.AGoodGoodbye.com to download the file through this short link: http://wp.me/p42jYh-4DE.
Gail Rubin, CT – author, speaker, journalist and death educator – connects with baby boomers using humor, funny films and a light touch on serious subjects. A Certified Thanatologist, she is coordinating the inaugural Before I Die ABQ Festival October 20-25, 2017. Download a free AAEPA-approved 50-point Executors Checklist featured in her latest book KICKING THE BUCKET LIST: 100 Downsizing and Organizing Things to Do Before You Die from www.AGoodGoodbye.com.
Academy Guest Blogger
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
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