QUESTION: May a plastic coffin be used to bury our dead? (Roland F. Kantor, Los Angeles CA)
ANSWER: Originally the dead were buried directly in the ground and there was some question whether a coffin of any kind was appropriate (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 362.1 and commentaries). However, a coffin was permitted as long as it was placed directly in the ground. Of course, at an earlier time burial in caves and niches cut into the walls of the cave was quite common in ancient Israel, and this meant that burial in coffins of stone was also considered appropriate (Tos Oholot 2.3; I. Goodenough Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman World; Semahot 13; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 362.5). Generally coffins were made of wood and often with loose boards on the bottom so that there would be some direct contact with the ground (J Kelaim 11.4; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 362.1 and commentaries). We should note that one Talmudic agadah indicated that Joseph was buried in a metal casket and that casket was then preserved in the Nile River until taken to the land of Israel when the Israelites left Egypt (Sota 13a).
We can see that a variety of caskets were used in the past. Two considerations were important. Everything connected with the deceased such as the shroud and coffin were to be simple. In addition it was felt that the physical decay of the dead served as an atonement. We too seek to curb excesses connected with funerals. If, therefore, a plastic casket is less expensive, then we may use it Jewish burials. For those who feel that contact with the soil is important, holes might be drilled in the bottom of the casket as has been done earlier with metal caskets.