QUESTION: A group of Jews interested in meditation wish to use incense as part of their funeral ritual at the grave. Their liturgy is normative Jewish. They meditate and feel that incense might help them and be appropriate as it was used in ancient times. Would this be acceptable at a graveside service? (Barry Gold, Berkley CA)
ANSWER: Incense is used continuously in the worship in the Bible. We find lengthy descriptions and they even provide details of precise mixtures as well as all of the ingredients. This material is further expanded subsequently in the Mishnah and the Talmud. A good deal of modern work in studying the plant material has been done. However, the interest in incense and its use ended with the Temple. This was a form of worship which was related to the sacrifices and therefore could not be replicated in the synagogue except through readings, and these occurred in various points of the service as for example in the preliminary readings of the shaharit. In other words, this along with all other matters associated with the Temple was limited to Temple worship and not considered transferable.
There is nothing which would prohibit the use of incense for this Jewish meditation group as part of a funeral ritual as long as they made no effort to copy the ritual of the ancient Temple, but simply did whatever they felt appropriate for their meditation.
The use of incense by various oriental religions has undoubtedly influenced this group; there is an element of huqat goyim, so we must view the practice with caution.
Although we would not recommend the use of incense, it would be permitted if the cemetery rules allow it.