That’s a great question, one that makes perfect sense to an American Jew, since burial in a simple casket is de rigueur among those who follow Jewish tradition here in the US.

You may be surprised to learn that I recently fielded an entirely different question from a Jew in Israel. After reading about someone being buried in a pine coffin, he asked if caskets are allowed according to Jewish law.

You see, unlike in the Diaspora, the widespread custom in Israel is for the dead to be buried in the ground without any sort of coffin, with only their shrouds separating them from the earth. The use of any coffin is thus an anomaly for them.

What gives?

Burying the Dead in the Earth

Man is composed of a body and soul. As the verse in Genesis states, “The L‑rd G‑d formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.”1

The soul comes from G‑d Himself, and when the person dies, his or her soul returns to its source. The same is true for the body, which must return to dust, as we read, “For dust you are, and to dust you will return.”2

The commandment to specifically bury the dead is reiterated in Deuteronomy, which tells us (regarding someone executed by the court) that “you shall bury him on that day.”3

Accordingly, the practice in Israel (and other places as well) is to bury the person directly in the ground, which is the ideal way of fulfilling the mitzvah.4

A Wooden Coffin

So where does the coffin enter the picture? In some locales, this is due to government regulations or for other reasons. But this is by no means a modern invention. The concept of using some sort of coffin is mentioned in the Bible regarding Joseph, as well as a number of times in the Talmud.5

But in order for the person to be buried in the dust, the coffin must be entirely buried in the ground.6 It is also customary to do some or all of the following: remove the bottom planks of the coffin prior to burial, drill holes in the bottom, and/or put earth in the coffin itself.7 Also, since the wooden coffin (often pine) grew from the ground and will easily return to it by disintegrating, it is still considered as if one was buried in the earth.8

These practices have precedence in the Talmudic tradition that Rabbi Judah the Prince (redactor of the Mishnah) instructed before his passing that he be buried in simple shrouds, and that holes be made in his coffin so that it would be opened to the earth.9

Not Shaming the Poor

There is another key reason why we make sure to specifically use a simple coffin with very few adornments, if any.

We find in the Talmud that there was a time when those who were wealthier would use more expensive materials, and the poor would use cheaper materials. The poor were embarrassed, so the rabbis instituted that the rich use the same materials as the poor. In the words of the Talmud:

Additionally, at first the wealthy would take the deceased out for burial on a dargash (a type of ornamental bed), and the poor would take the deceased out on a plain bier made from poles that were strapped together; and the poor were embarrassed. The sages instituted that everyone should be taken out for burial on a plain bier, due to the honor of the poor.10

The rule of using simple materials for the dead also applies to the other aspects of the funeral, such as using simple shrouds.

A Matter of Perspective

When one passes away from this world, he sheds his corporeal body, and the soul lives on in the spiritual worlds. In those worlds, only spiritual wealth has meaning; physical wealth is worthless. Thus, if one wants to bring true honor to the soul, the best thing to do would be to take any of the money that he would have used for a fancier or more expensive funeral, and use it for charity to support the learning of Torah and fulfillment of mitzvahs in the merit of the departed. This not only brings great merit, but is the greatest honor that the soul can have in the spiritual world.

Ultimately, however, we believe that the soul will once again be reunited with its physical body at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead. Thus, death and burial is only temporary, which is another reason why nothing fancy is needed.

May we merit the time when G‑d will wipe away death and tears from this world, with the coming of Moshiach!