Contemporary American Reform Responsa

91. Open Casket

QUESTION: What is the attitude of Reform Judaism to an open casket prior to the funeral service? The casket is closed during the service. Would this attitude change if the entire funeral were held at a chapel located in the cemetery? (Rabbi R. Walter, Houston, TX)

ANSWER: We have become accustomed to closed caskets, and that has become a uniform practice throughout the country, at least after the funeral service has begun. The coffin is always closed when funeral services are held in the synagogue. In most cities, the casket also remains closed during the time before the service. Visiting before the service has been discouraged. Some modern Orthodox rabbis have objected very strongly to the open casket as an imitation of Gentile practices (J. Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Avelut, p. 36 and W. Leiter, Bet David 198b). There are also some earlier traditional objections, so the Talmud (M. K. 72a) stated that the faces of the poor should be covered because they would display their poverty and the surviving relatives would be put to shame, a reason also given by the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 353.1). The Talmud (Hor. 13b) also stated that a man may forget all that he has learned if he looks upon the face of the dead. Similarly, the Sefer Hassidim (Margolis, ed., p. 103) prohibited kissing the dead. We must, of course, remember that most dead in ancient times were simply buried in shrouds and not in a coffin. In fact, there is a considerable discussion among the authorities whether closing a coffin is not the equivalent of burial, and therefore, may lead to the beginning of official mourning. This discussion hinges on the interpretation of a phrase yisasem hagolel (M. K. 27a; Shab. 152b). Rabbenu Tam insisted that this meant the grave had to be covered, while Rashi thought it referred to the closing of the coffin. Various later authorities have quoted one or the other in their opinions.

It is clearly our custom to have the coffin closed at the cemetery and generally at the funeral home in accordance with tradition. We insist on it when services are conducted in the synagogue itself and at the cemetery chapel. The coffin should be closed before and during the service.

August 1979

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.