At Jewish funerals, why are the caskets closed? Don’t most funerals have open caskets?
This is an excellent question, especially in light of the prevalence of open casket ceremonies in American culture. However, it is important to understand that this is a relatively recent American practice and does not have a deep tradition in ancient culture or modern European practice. (See Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, pg. 26.) The relatively recent American change has been due to an idea that viewing the body is a way of showing respect to the deceased.
Judaism places a high priority on showing respect for the deceased. Indeed, one of the highest commandments is kevod ha-meit, honoring the deceased. One of the reasons this commandment is so highly regarded is that the act may never be reciprocated by the deceased – it is an entirely selfless act by definition. Even so, in our tradition one does not show respect for the person by viewing his or her remains. The viewing of the physical body is more apt, in the traditional opinion, to lead to thoughts that do not honor the deceased. Viewing a corpse is more likely to bring to mind opinions on how the body appears, or an emotional reaction that is more tied to how we feel when seeing a dead person or grappling with our own mortality. None of these truly honor the deceased. Rather, remembering the person’s deeds and saying psalms and the honoring prayers of Eyl Maley Rachamim and Kaddish Yatom truly honor the person without the possibly superficial thoughts on the body’s appearance or the charged emotions of seeing a dead body which has nothing really to do with honoring the deceased’s soul.
There is another aspect of a viewing which contradicts Jewish tradition. To have an open casket, usually the mortician must do something to the body to make it presentable. This may include cosmetics, manipulations, and even embalming. Judaism takes seriously the injunction in Torah that “Dust you are, to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) Additionally, we believe that we are created b’tzelem Elohim – “in the image of God.” Putting these two ideas together, our tradition and belief is that we should do nothing to significantly or permanently change our image, or prevent our natural return to dust. The methods morticians need to use to present a body for an open casket transgress these ideas and values, preventing us from having open casket funerals.
For more information about Jewish funerals, death and mourning rituals, visit InterfaithFamily. Two articles you might find especially helpful are Jewish Burial and Mourning Practice for Non-Jewish Relatives and How To Pay a Shiva Call.
Other Ask A Rabbi entries about death and mourning: