The Case Against a Kosher Casket By David Zinner


[Ed. Note: Again this week, I am presenting a previously published blog entry. We are working on improving the presentation of the blog articles for readability, style, and appearance. I would appreciate hearing from you about this blog, particularly if you are having any difficulties, problems, or issues accessing or reading it. If you have any comments – or a blog submission, please contact me at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org. — JB] 

Kosher Casket

A Kosher Casket?

A Kosher Casket?

Kosher means fit or proper for ritual use, but unlike the biblical delineation of which foods are kosher, there are no biblical rules to give guidance regarding manufacture of kosher caskets. The Talmud contains dozens of occurrences of Hebrew words that are translated to English as “casket”, “coffin”, “bier”, “chest” and more. But nowhere in Jewish writings is there a discussion of what makes a casket kosher.

Tachrichim (shroud or burial garment) manufacturers have suggested that there are “kosher” tachrichim dependent on the observance level of the workers and certifying that the product was not made on Shabbat. The rationale for this seems slim for tachrichim, and even slimmer for caskets. Basing Kashrut on worker’s level of observance is a novel approach not practiced in kosher food manufacturing. More interesting and fruitful pursuits to define a kosher casket might include looking at working conditions, wages and health benefits of the employees, as well as the environmental impact of the manufacturing ingredients and process.

Simple & Inexpensive

The Talmud directs that all aspects of funeral and burial should be kept simple and inexpensive, and by extension fit and proper. BT (Babylonian Talmud) Moed Katan 27a- 27b contains an extended discussion of funeral practices and a story about Rabban Gamliel. This discussion can open a window to the meaning of ‘Kosher’ in relation to a casket.

Formerly, they were wont to bring out the rich [for burial] on a dargesh [a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets] and the poor on a plain bier, and the poor felt shamed: they instituted therefore that all should be brought out on a plain bier, out of deference for the poor.

 Without knowing the difference between a dargesh and a bier in Rabban Gamliel’s time, the implication is clear – the dargesh is fancy and affordable to the rich; the bier is simple and used by those who are poor. The dargesh made it easy to carry the body and to show off wealth. The bier (Hebrew – mitah) is a simple stand or platform that holds and/or carries the body.

Jewish Law (Halachah)

The Shulchan Aruch allows for burial with or without a casket, but gives no indication of how to determine if a casket is Kosher. Rabbi Mosha Epstein in his Taharah Manual of Practices quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Feinstein could find no source for an all wood casket. He cites Rambam, yet Rambam in his Book of Judges – Laws of Mourning – 4:4 says: “It is permissible to bury the dead in a wooden casket.”

In the 1960’s, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America negotiated funeral standards with the Jewish Funeral Directors of America. The Orthodox Rabbis were successful in incorporating taharah, tachrichim, Shmirah, and ground burial into the standards. They failed in their attempt to include simple plain caskets.

Plain Pine Box

It was only 60 years ago that an expensive all wood casket became acceptable in the Jewish community. Our Moed Katan example goes back over 1,700 years. We should pick up Rabban Gamliel’s cause and champion a simple casket (or none at all) as a return to less expensive funerals and burials.

David Zinner is the Executive Director of Kavod V’Nichum (honor and comfort), and of the Gamliel Institute, and serves as instructor for the non-denominational Gamliel Institute, a nonprofit center for Chevrah Kadisha organizing, education, and training. In his role as executive director Zinner co-teaches courses on Chevrah Kadisha history, organizing, taharah and shmira (sitting with the deceased until burial),  and building capacities in Jewish communities that enable all participants to meaningfully navigate these final life cycle events.

David Zinner

David Zinner, Executive Director of Kavod veNichum

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          GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings, in the Spring semester starting March 28, 2017.

CLASSES

The course will meet on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses.

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, participants raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and the moderator calls on and unmutes participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly and easy to use platform.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions begin at 5 PM PST; 8 PM EST.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

On registration, you will receive an automated acknowledgement. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information for the upcoming session.

You can view a recording of the sessions, uploaded after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700   

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, we plan to hold time for questions and discussions at the end of each program. 

Again, the entire series is free, but we ask that you make a donation to help us defray the costs of providing this series. The suggested $36 amount works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and extraordinary teachers that present it.

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome. 

The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual and actions around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with Israelis and British students joining us on occasion.

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Looking ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register, and make your hotel reservations and travel plans now!

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017

Registration is now open. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org
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DONATIONS:

Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

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To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.

Past blog entries can be searched online at the L.A. Jewish Journal. Point your browser to http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/, and scroll down. Along the left of the page you will see a list of ‘Recent Posts” with a “More Posts” link. You can also see the list by month of Expired and Inspired Archives below that, going back to 2014 when the blog started.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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The high cost of dying


A traditional Jewish funeral is simple and not ostentatious good news for people concerned about the high cost of dying. But while Jewish law doesn’t require embalming, elaborate floral displays or 16-gauge metal caskets with tufted crepe interiors, it does require Jews to be buried in the ground. And that costs money.

“You have to be realistic. We happen to live in an area where even a small piece of real estate is expensive,” said Mark Hyman, senior rabbi at Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach, who also serves as chair of the Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

But many Jews don’t want to be realistic when it comes to paying for funerals.

Perhaps it’s denial, a sign of reluctance to accept death, let alone finance it. Never mind that other lifecycle observances b’nai mitzvah and weddings, for instance come with concomitant costs.

Or perhaps it’s a fear of the potential ruses and abuses we’ve heard about in the funeral industry, many of them exposed in Jessica Mitford’s 1964 groundbreaking book titled, “The American Way of Death.”

Today, however, the funeral industry is highly regulated by both the federal and state governments many say as a result of Mitford’s book.

The “Funeral Rule,” stipulating how funeral professionals deal with consumers, was enacted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and put into effect in 1984. This has brought transparency to practices previously shrouded in secrecy; “Funerals: A Consumer’s Guide” is available online.

The Funeral Rule also requires funeral homes to give consumers who appear in person a detailed, printed list of merchandise and services, known as the “general price list.” If requested, a funeral home director must also quote prices over the phone. This allows consumers to more easily and accurately compare prices among funeral homes so they can select only those goods and services they want. Caskets and other items also must be allowed to be purchased from outside sources without incurring a handling fee.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs’ Cemetery and Funeral Bureau’s “Consumer Guide to Funeral & Cemetery Purchase,” spells out state law. Although those laws are applicable to all mortuaries, they do not pertain to cemeteries operated by religious organizations. That booklet, too, is available online.

In Southern California, the Board of Rabbis’ Funeral Practices Committee works with clergy, funeral industry representatives and the Jewish community to set standards, address issues and, as best as possible, nurture “a sacred and positive spirit of cooperation,” according the committee’s mission statement.

To that end, the committee has set a standard honorarium of $500 for unaffiliated families to pay ordained rabbis for officiating at Jewish funerals. Hyman said it is meant to represent the “time, energy and commitment that a rabbi should be giving to a family.”

The committee is also looking into the status and condition of various distressed or closed local Jewish cemeteries, among other priorities.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what funerals generally cost. The national average cost of a Jewish funeral is not available, as the Jewish Funeral Directors of America keeps no records, according to executive director Florence Pressman.

And the national median cost of a funeral in America which according to the National Funeral Directors Association totaled $7,323 in 2006, without including the cost of a plot is not relevant, as it encompasses nontraditional Jewish items, such as embalming, viewing and metal caskets.

In Los Angeles, estimated costs for a traditional Jewish funeral range roughly from $3,500 to $4,500, including the casket but not the plot or the rabbi’s services. The price can be less, with package deals available through some mortuaries. But higher costs can also be easily incurred.

For example, a plain pine casket costs $700 to $900, while some all-wood caskets still considered traditional can exceed $12,000. And a customized nonkosher casket can top $30,000.

As for land, the price for a single plot can range from around $2,000 in some cemeteries to as high as $35,000. And the price of a large estate, depending on the number of spaces allotted, can go as high as a family wishes to spend, commanding as much as half a million dollars.

“It’s location, location, location,” Mount Sinai’s general manager Len Lawrence said.

Despite the familiar real estate refrain, however, it’s worth noting that what you’re buying is the right to inter not actual property. Plot prices do not fluctuate with downturns in the real estate market.

The cost of a plot, by law, also includes a certain percentage mandated for endowment care to ensure cemetery upkeep in perpetuity. That amount for ground plots a minimum of $2.25 a square foot, according to California’s Cemetery & Funeral Bureau, though cemeteries can collect more is monitored by the state, and only its earned interest can be spent on maintenance.

Some cemeteries, such as those owned by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary, are nonendowment care entities.

“Our cemeteries are older and more Orthodox,” said Yossi Manela, a Chevra Kadisha funeral director. “They’re more affordable, but they’re not for everyone.”

A burial vault is another expense that is often questioned. The container, which is usually made of cement and encloses a coffin, is not mandated by California law, but is required by many cemeteries to prevent the ground from settling and forming sinkholes and to facilitate maintenance. “Most cemeteries are referred to as memorial parks and have beautiful grounds. The vault allows for the park-like atmosphere,” said Ira Polisky, Eden’s family service manager.

To save money, some people buy plots from third-party sources. Plots offered for sale can be found in the newspaper classified ads including this newspaper as well as online, on sites like Craigslist and eBay. People sell plots because they decide to move, for example, or divorce and no longer want to share eternity. Or sometimes financial concerns force them to cash out.

Caskets also are sold through online distributors or retail stores. ABC Caskets Factory, for example, located in downtown Los Angeles, is a casket manufacturer and not merely an online store. The company offers same-day delivery to mortuaries within a 30-mile radius, accommodating families who are arranging next-day funerals in accordance with Jewish tradition.

“Our Jewish caskets are all ready. It’s no big deal,” said Isabelle Conzevoy, wife of owner Joey Conzevoy.

Online and retail sellers, however, are not regulated by the same federal and state laws that govern funeral establishments, though they are subject to state and local business laws.

However, a concern was voiced about third-party purchases. “But what do you do if the casket arrives dented or damaged?” asked Moe Goldsman, funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park.

For the indigent, the Jewish Community Burial Program, offered through Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, provides a traditional Jewish burial at no cost, with participating Jewish mortuaries and cemeteries donating many of their services. (The toll-free contact number is (887) 275-4537.)

“No one should have to make an un-Jewish and undignified choice because of cost,” Funeral Practices Committee chair Hyman said.

Additionally, some cemeteries, including Hillside and Mount Sinai, do not charge for the burial of a child. “The family has enough tzuris (trouble). They don’t need any more,” Mount Sinai’s Lawrence said.

Still, the fact is, sooner or later, all of us are going to deal with the reality and the expense of death.

“It’s part of our life experience. Death is really another chapter in our life and is to be treated with the utmost sanctity,” Hyman said.



ALTTEXT
Caves of Abraham, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, Simi Valley

Planning Ahead

Rabbis and Jewish community professionals have long trumpeted the advantages of preplanning for end-of-life exigencies.
It’s not always an easy sell.

“We live in psychological denial that we are going to die someday, although we mentally understand,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at American Jewish University, who also serves as halachic consultant at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries.

“That’s perfectly healthy, but not OK if it prevents us from making preparations for death,” he added.

The Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which acts as a liaison among clergy, families in need and the Jewish funeral industry, takes a strong stance on this issue.

“For parents, [planning ahead] is a gift of love for your family, not just financially, but also spiritually and emotionally,” said Mark Hyman, senior rabbi at Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach and Funeral Practices Committee chair.

Ron Sobol, 54, took action after his mother’s death, soon after which he also received a flyer from Adat Ari El announcing a sale of cemetery plots the synagogue had purchased at Eden Memorial Park.

“When a parent dies, you feel a little bit more mortal,” Sobol said.

Sobol met an Adat Ari El representative at the cemetery, viewed plots in three locations and purchased companion side-by-side plots for himself and his wife, Leah.

“It seemed like the right thing to do,” Sobol said.

For people who want a traditional burial, selecting a cemetery is usually the first step. Choosing a particular plot or crypt, which is a space in a mausoleum or other building, follows.

Those set on Hillside Memorial Park or Mount Sinai Memorial Park’s Hollywood Hills location might not want to drag their feet. In 25 years or more, both expect to be out of room.

“Sold out, not filled,” Mount Sinai general manager Len Lawrence specified.

But the situation isn’t dire.

Mount Sinai opened its 160-acre Simi Valley location in 2002, giving it space for the next two centuries, according to Lawrence. Hillside is actively looking for new property, CEO Mark Friedman reported. And Eden Memorial Park, which was purchased by Service Corporation International in 1985, is “good for 100 years-plus,” said general manager Anthony Lempe.

No national statistics are available concerning the number of Jews who make advance burial preparations, but according to representatives at Mount Sinai, Hillside and Eden, the three largest cemeteries that serve the multidenominational Los Angeles community, it’s a clear majority.

“This is going to happen to all of us, and if you do your thinking and decision making at a time when you can all be open and rational and truly together, you make much better decisions,” Hillside’s Friedman said.

In addition to the plot, preplanning can include selecting the casket and, if desired, a shroud. Plus, certain services, such as taharah (the ritual cleansing) and shmira (guarding the body) can be prearranged. Even flowers can be ordered in advance.

Mortuaries generally take care of the casket and additional services. Certain cemeteries, including Hillside, Mount Sinai and Sholom, have their own mortuaries. Others are independent but work cooperatively with all cemeteries.

Fewer people, however, prepay the mortuary expenses.

“It’s really a personal decision based on a family’s current financial position,” said Helaine Cohen, a certified public accountant.

She explained that families struggling with mortgages, college tuitions and other day-to-day expenses may be better off waiting until the children leave home. Other families, with one or both spouses working, may be better positioned to pay for these expenses when their income is more substantial, before they retire.

Cohen herself admits that she and her husband have not discussed buying plots. “We just turned 50,” she said. “That’s the age to address long-term health insurance.”

But people can make many end-of-life decisions without actually prepaying for them. Most mortuaries, in fact, will

keep these preferences on record. Additionally, writing wills and creating other financial and health care directives are really part of the preplanning process, with some of these documents not subject to delay.

“I frankly think and people look at me cross-eyed when I say this that as soon as a person gets a driver’s license that person should fill out a durable power of attorney of health care,” Dorff said. He believes it’s important that parents know their teenager’s wishes in the rare case of a debilitating accident.

Dorff also recommends that parents, as they get older, write an ethical will, essentially a letter to their children specifying their life values. Additionally, he advises compiling a family history.

But people can’t preplan in a vacuum.

“It’s interesting. We encourage people to preplan, but first you have to do education,” said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, the national nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring Jewish death and bereavement practices.

Generally, end-of-life education takes place in the synagogue, encompassing a session or two in a Jewish life-cycle curriculum. It’s also a popular sermon topic during the Yom Kippur Yizkor (memorial) service.

Kavod v’Nichum itself sponsors an annual conference on chevra kadisha (a holy society that prepares the body of the deceased for burial) and related topics such as chaplaincy. The organization’s next conference, in June 2009, is targeted for the West Coast, possibly Los Angeles, according to Zinner.

Moe Goldsman, funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park, holds a seminar annually after the High Holy Days to educate people about preneed. This year it’s scheduled for Oct. 26 at Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City.

And Sinai Temple is hosting a one-day seminar on death and dying on Feb. 22, 2009, open to the community. “We hope to help people begin a discussion,” said Terry Wohlberg, co-founder of the synagogue’s chevra kadisha.

A conversation about these issues, whether people actually make advance arrangements or not, can do more than ease future burdens on the survivors. It can have real-time and unexpected benefits for the people themselves.

Producer Cathee Weiss works with individuals who want to create film biographies, sitting down with them to discuss the life lessons they wish to impart to their progeny.

“There’s always reflection on the big values,” Weiss said. “The notion of what we’re going to leave behind makes all of us a little more conscious of living a life of worth, of value, of integrity.”