QUESTION: A family has asked whether it is necessary to purchase expensive linen shrouds for their dead grandfather. The family has limited means and would prefer to use some ordinary garments for burial. What is a attitude of tradition? (Kate Goldsmith, Houston IX)
ANSWER: Tradition has emphasized simplicity for funerals. Rabban Gamliel, who was wealthy, insisted that he be buried in only a linen shroud in order to set an example (M K 27b). Another scholar R. Hezkiah asked that the shrouds used for his burial be limited in number (J Kelaim 9.4). Linen shrouds, often eight in number came to be used (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 352; Tekushinsky Gesher Hayim Vol 1 p 102f). The number may have arisen under kabbalistic influence. Shrouds could be omitted for a known sinner as a sign of disparagement (Joel Sirkes to Tur Yoreh Deah 362).
There is a well established tradition for the use of shrouds, but we should remember that they were used to avoid extravagance and unnecessary expense. In keeping with tradition it should be possible to obtain inexpensive linen shrouds or shrouds of any other material. It would also be permissible to use the garments which the deceased wore and so avoid any additional expense. This is appropriate and in the spirit of tradition.