QUESTION: An aunt in a small southern town will be buried by a Christian funeral director. He has provided a wooden coffin in accordance with tradition; it is heavily decorated with carved figures. Should this coffin or a simple metal coffin be used for her burial? (Dorothy Cohen, Birmingham AL)
ANSWER: We along with tradition have emphasized simplicity in all funeral arrangements. This included the service, coffin, and tombstone. The deceased was better honored through gifts to charity. Rabban Gamliel sought to set this pattern by being buried in only a shroud although he was a wealthy man (Ket 8b; MK 27b).
The older tradition assumed burial in the ground and understood the decay of the body as atonement (M San 5.6; 46b; Tur, Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 362). Coffins were, however, used in ancient times as we know from the Jerusalem Talmud (Kel 9.4) and from those excavated at archeological sites. Maimonides preferred wooden coffins (Yad Hil Avel 4.4) and many authorities have followed him. Stone or pottery coffins were used in ancient Israel (M Oholot 2.3; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 362.5); a metal coffin was used to bury Joseph according to tradition (Sotah 13 b; Jacob Levinson Hatorah Vehamedapp 65 ff). Both wood and metal deteriorate in contrast to stone or pottery.
This discussion demonstrates that the primary consideration for a coffin was simplicity. A wooden coffin has been preferred by many, but is not essential. The simpler and less expensive coffin should be used. Charitable donations should be made with the funds which remain.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.