By RABBI JOSEPH PROUSER
The distinctive simplicity of traditional Jewish funerals – modest, wooden casket (“a plain pine box”) and linen shrouds – is generally traced to Rabban Gamliel, the first century Sage, Sanhedrin Head, and grandson of Hillel the Elder. Rejecting ostentatious funeral rites among wealthy Jews – and the resulting embarrassment of those of lesser material means – Gamliel insisted that he be buried in simple shrouds…. firmly establishing the ritual norm.
Unpretentious Jewish funeral observances are an act of social conscience and sensitivity to those of limited material resources. (Extravagant “kosher” caskets – which first appeared in the mid-20th century – represent not an enhancement of Jewish observance, but an acquisitive entrepreneurial manipulation by those who benefit from their sale.)
The Jewish disdain for garish funerals also admirably reflects the emotional state of the mourner. The very term “bereaved” comes from Middle English (by way of proto-German), meaning “to rob, plunder, despoil.” The bereaved have been robbed of that which they most treasure. They are left emotionally deprived and impoverished. Ostentatious funerals are inconsistent with such a destitute internal state.
“When we die, neither silver nor gold nor precious stones accompany us… only Torah and good deeds.” (Avot 6:9).
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey. He is the former National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)