QUESTION: My congregation is located in a distant suburb, and we wish to know whether it is obligatory for us to encourage the use of a Jewish funeral director in the inner city versus a non-Jewish funeral director nearby. (Arlene Cowan, Los Angeles CA)
ANSWER: Traditionally each community had a special hevrah qadishah which took care of the arrangements connected with the burial of the dead. Participation in this hevrah was considered a mitzvah and members of the group were accorded special honors within the community. The preparation of the deceased for burial such as guarding the corpse, and the burial itself were carefully regulated (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 361 ff; J. Greenwald Kol Bo al Avelut pp 85 ff; Gesher Hahayim). This group of men and women saw to it that the deceased was appropriately honored. In contemporary America, this hevrah qadishah works in conjunction with a funeral director and provides for the ritual elements necessary, but only rarely has been involved with the details of the funeral. This has become a profession and the funeral director looks after the arrangements, complies with state laws, and is able to transport bodies from a distant place of death to the city in which the funeral and burial will take place. It is certainly preferable to use a Jewish funeral director who, although is not the equivalent of a hevrah qadishah, is nevertheless more akin to it. One might say that he/she represents the professionalization of this ancient group.
A few cities have communal funeral arrangements which encourage lower cost funerals and give their profits to communal institutions. This is much more akin to the hevrah qadishah and would be the most preferable.
A non-Jewish funeral director may, of course, be used if no Jewish funeral director is available, in keeping with the tradition which states that on the first day of yom tov non-Jews should be engaged for the burial (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 526.4). Generally, however, a Jewish funeral director should be utilized and your congregation should encourage that. We would not require the involvement of a hevrah qadishah as we are willing to rely on the Jewish funeral director for proper care and guardianship of the deceased.