Image: A plain pine casket. Photo: Northwoods Casket Company.
Likewise, at first taking the dead out for burial was more difficult for the relatives than the actual death, because it was customary to bury the dead in expensive shrouds, which the poor could not afford. The problem grew to the point that relatives would sometimes abandon the corpse and run away. This lasted until Rabban Gamliel came and acted with frivolity, meaning that he waived his dignity, by leaving instructions that he be taken out for burial in linen garments. And the people adopted this practice after him and had themselves taken out for burial in linen garments. Rav Pappa said: And nowadays, everyone follows the practice of taking out the dead for burial even in plain hemp garments that cost only a dinar. – Moed Katan 27b
Sometimes people are surprised at the plainness of Jewish funerals. The coffin is usually plain wood and there are no flowers. The funeral itself is simple: a few psalms, a few words about the deceased, more psalms, and then the special prayers for the dead: El Male Rachamim and the Mourner’s Kaddish. We put the plain box gently in the ground, and all participate in filling the grave.
That’s all there is to the funeral. Afterwards our focus is on the mourners, making sure that they are able to do the work of grief with the community’s support. If you want to know more about that, I have written A Quick Primer on Jewish Mourning.
The story above is the origin of all this simplicity. The ancient Jewish community was divided by the fact that some were wealthier than others. Income inequality was so wide that some families felt ashamed to bury their dead, because they felt they could not do so adequately without spending money they did not have.
It took the leadership of Rabban Gamliel to change things. He made arrangements that his own funeral would be utterly simple: a simple shroud that anyone could afford, or that a donor might buy for a destitute person. In that way, he equalized all Jewish funerals: he set the example that even a great sage from a prosperous family should have such a simple funeral. Therefore everyone had to follow suit.
Sometimes when we talk about economic justice, we spend a lot of time reassuring people with resources that they will not lose anything by making justice. It’s up to those individuals, sometimes, to lead the way, and perhaps to quietly shame those who don’t want to give up their own splendid shroud. Face it: who needs a high fashion shroud?
Jewish tradition teaches us that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things in this world. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about money. However, it is wrong to leave others hungry or homeless. It is wrong to do things in such a way that others will feel ashamed.