An Introduction to Jewish Burial Customs 1 by Rabbi Elchonon Zohn
The Soul Is Present
When a person dies, the soul (in Hebrew, neshamah) hovers around the body. The soul is the essence of the person, its consciousness and the totality of its thoughts, deeds, experiences, and relationships. The body was its container and its partner in this world. The soul, on its way to the Eternal World, refuses to leave until the body is buried, and continues to exist for awhile in the vicinity of the body.
Jewish funeral and mourning practices are therefore extremely concerned with the feelings of the deceased, not only the feelings of the mourners. How we treat the body and how we behave around it must reflect how we would act around the very soul itself at this sensitive time. Now more than ever, the body deserves respect — for the soul of the departed is very aware of what happens to its body.
Since leaving the body unattended would imply a certain amount of disregard, we arrange for a shomer (guard) to be present. These watch guards stay with the body day and night, reciting passages from the Book of Psalms, lending great comfort to the soul while it waits for its body’s burial and its own ascent to the Eternal World.
The soul is about to face its judgment. Possessions and clothes don’t matter — good deeds do. That’s why every Jew is buried exactly alike, in a handmade, simple, clean white linen shroud that includes a white linen hat, shirt, pants, shoes, coat, and belt. The shrouds have no pockets to accentuate the fact that no worldly belongings accompany us. They are modeled after the white uniform worn by the high priest in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur when he stood before God asking for the needs of his family and the entire Jewish People. These shrouds are therefore especially appropriate because soon after death, each and every soul asks for the needs of his or her family.
"For dust you are and to dust you shall return."2 This Biblical teaching guides us in selecting a casket. The casket must not be made of a material that slows down the body’s natural return to nature. Wood is the only material allowed, and several holes are opened at the bottom to hasten the body’s return to the earth. When vaults are required, they too should be open at the bottom. Viewing the body is seen as disrespectful to the memory of the deceased.
The soul’s return to heaven is dependent upon the body’s return to the ground (as Ecclesiastes 12:7 says, "The dust returns to the earth … and the spirit returns to God who gave it"). Jewish law is therefore concerned with the immediacy of burial and the natural decomposition of the body. Mausoleums are forbidden since they retard the process of return to the earth. Cremation is certainly forbidden. Burial is directly into the ground, with family members and friends helping to fill the grave completely until a mound is formed. We make no attempt to retard the body’s decomposition.
1 Adapted with permission from Dignity for the Body, Peace for the Soul: An Introduction to Jewish Burial Customs, available in full at http://www.shared.nasck.org/jewish_burial.pdf#zoom=75.
2 Genesis 3:19.