Questions and Answers on Jewish Law and Tradition Concerning Death
Why does Jewish law require that the deceased be buried within twenty-four hours of death? Are any exceptions allowed?
The biblical basis for this law is questionable, as a portion of Deuteronomy 21:23 is cited: His body shall not remain overnight…, but you shall surely bury him that day.”
If you read the command in its context, you will see that it refers to someone who has been executed for a crime. Verse 23 in its entirety says, “His body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.”
Nevertheless, the reasons stated in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning seem altogether reasonable and in keeping with Scripture, if not specifically stated: “The religious concept underlying this law is that man, made in the image of God, should be accorded the deepest respect. It is considered a matter of great shame and discourtesy to leave the deceased unburied—his soul has returned to God, but his body is left to linger in the land of the living.”1
A secondary stated reason is for the benefit of the bereaved, that they should not have to undergo the pain of the physical presence of a deceased loved one.
There are times when a delay is allowable according to the rabbis. The delay must in some way contribute to honoring the dead—for example, if close relatives must travel a long distance or if the proper shrouds or casket are not immediately available. The burial may also be delayed when the government requires it, such as for the legal transportation of the body or for required post mortem examinations.
Why must the deceased be buried in a wood coffin?
Three reasons are given. First, Adam and Eve hid among the trees when God said that the result of the first sin would be death. Second, wood is used so that the body and shroud will not decompose too much sooner than the coffin, that God’s Word “Unto dust shalt thou return” be fulfilled. Last, and probably least, is the idea that because metal is useful in war, it might seem somehow to mitigate against a loved one resting in peace.
There is no religious requirement placed on the type of wood or the expense (or lack of expense) of the coffin. However, Jewish tradition tends to frown on any ostentation at a funeral, as it does not afford the deceased any added dignity. A better way to honor the deceased is to contribute money to charity or a good cause in his or her name.
Has the traditional Jewish view of the nature of death changed over the years?
Yes! According to The Jewish Mourner’s Book of Why, at one time the rabbis taught that death was “the wages of sin.” The author wrote, “This concept, later rejected by mainstream Judaism, later became a core belief of Christianity.” He cites, via footnote, Romans 5:12.
Is it appropriate for a Jewish believer to be cremated?
If you are seeking to follow Jewish tradition, the answer is a definite no, as Genesis 3:19 is seen as a command. However, there is no verse that says, “Thou shalt not cremate.” The passage in question is a death sentence, a declaration of what will happen, not a directive. (Even so, most of the body’s composition returns to the earth even with cremation.) However, even if cremation is not strictly forbidden in Scripture, you need to be aware that the practice has its roots in monism. Many who wish to be cremated believe in reincarnation, becoming one with God, etc. Even if you attach no such significance to cremation, remember, you will not be there to defend your view! Therefore, for the sake of your story, it is probably best to seek an alternative plan.
Is it appropriate for a Jewish believer in Yeshua to use Jewish law and tradition as a standard for mourning loved ones and for planning one’s own funeral?
Jewish law and tradition provide many well thought out guidelines for sensitive and appropriate measures regarding caring for the deceased as well as caring for the mourners. Most traditions are based on respect for the dignity of life and consideration for the bereaved. It is appropriate for a Jewish believer to maintain such traditions as he or she feels led. It is appropriate for Jewish believers to identify with Jewish family and friends through the keeping of these traditions insofar as they do not require us to compromise our story. For example, in planning for one’s own funeral, it is not appropriate to plan on being buried where it is forbidden for a fellow believer to perform the ceremony or for any kind of Christian story to go forth.
For those who have questions about Jewish customs regarding death, burial and mourning, The Jewish Mourner’s Book of Why by Alfred J. Kolatch contains a wealth of information on the subject. It is a relatively new book (copyright 1993) written in question and answer format. The publisher is Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., Middle Village, NY 11379.
- Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1969), 19