Coffins and Burial

Dear Rabbi Fried,

A company is selling “a variety of eco-friendly, biodegradable burial products including Ecopod, a kayak-shaped coffin made out of recycled newspapers,” according to the newspaper story, it will also offer “fair-trade bamboo caskets lined w/bleached cotton” and “more traditional-looking handcrafted coffins made of wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. “Prices of the biodegradable containers start at about $100 for a basic cardboard box. “Biodegradable coffins are part of a larger trend toward ‘natural’ burials, which require no formaldehyde embalming, cement vaults, chemical lawn treatments or laminated caskets,” the article also says. This all sounds very Jewish to me (for different basic reasons, of course); I’d like to know if a traditional burial would be kosher in a cardboard box or recycled newspaper coffin — since both cardboard and newspaper are basically made of wood to start with. Or might there be other elements in them to render such things unkosher?


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Dear Fred,

I’m sure you’re dying to hear the answer to this question, (no pun intended, of course).

In principle, I see nothing wrong with these coffins. The Code of Jewish Law deems burial in any coffin as only the second-best mode of burial. Ideally, he rules, one should be buried without a coffin at all, rather be put directly into the earth, as this way the body most quickly “returns to the earth from whence it came”. This is, in fact, the custom of some of the most stringent burial societies in Israel, especially in Jerusalem where the custom is most prevalent. Based upon this concept, Jewish law prohibits the use of coffins made of metal, concrete or other impervious metals, as they prevent the body from being “returned to the earth”.

Based upon this, I would agree with you that biodegradable coffins would be a very Jewish way to go.

After a little research, however, I have some hesitations about these coffins. The company’s reason for the biodegradable coffins is to do the least possible to “upset nature”. It’s all about being green, leaving the world without leaving a mark. Most of those who use these coffins also leave no headstone or any other mark which would upset the natural surroundings they chose to be buried in. That’s part of why they’re made in the shape of a kayak, and painted with beautiful, natural colors, decorated with suns and other signs of nature.

This differs greatly from the Jewish reason to be buried in the ground. Let us spend a moment to understand more deeply the concept of burial in Judaism.

The mitzvah to bury the dead is in fulfillment of the verse, “…for you are dust, and to dust shall you return”. 

That mitzvah was said subsequent to the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, when death was first decreed. Before that sin, man would have never died; he would have lived forever.

From the time of that sin, Adam fell from his lofty, angelic state. Like the poison of a snakebite, the evil was circulated throughout his body upon partaking of the snake’s advice to eat the fruit. The body, now permeated with evil, acquired the need to decompose in order to eradicate any trace of that evil. After the evil is expunged through death and burial, the body can be rebuilt in its former glory after the “revival of the dead”. 

For this reason, the body is meant to be returned to the earth, allowing it to decompose and rejoin the earth as quickly as possible to begin the cleansing process and preparation for eternity.

Conversely, we are of the belief that every human being is unique and leaves an indelible impression on the world he lived in. That is one reason that we erect grave markers. No Jew should leave the world without making a positive mark, and having a place to be remembered!

I see no inherent reason not to use the coffins you are inquiring about as long as they are not being used for the reason they are being offered. We are not trying to minimize the individual’s impact on the world. We are, rather, utilizing their product to help the deceased in his or her trek towards eternity.   


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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