Why Don’t Jews Have Open-Casket Funerals?
Unfortunately, I recently had occasion to attend a traditional Jewish funeral. I was told that Jews don’t do open-casket funerals or hold viewings. Why is that? I always appreciated being able to get one last look at the deceased before burial.
Although some may find it therapeutic, in Judaism, the funeral is for the most part devoted to the respect and honor of the deceased, while the period of mourning that follows is primarily for the benefit of the mourners. In fact, one is not supposed to comfort the mourners while their dead still lie before them. Comfort and relief come later, after funeral and burial arrangements have been completed and the dead have been interred.
So although some may find comfort in viewing the dead, this time is focused on the deceased, providing them with a final, dignified send-off in accordance with Torah tradition.
Additionally, there are a number of issues with open-casket funerals, on practical, halachic and mystical levels.
Gazing at the Dead
The Kabbalists explain that one of the reasons we cover the face of the deceased is because a person’s sins are “engraved upon the forehead.” By gazing at the deceased, especially at a time when the soul is still hovering over the body waiting for its final judgement, we can potentially arouse divine prosecution against them, bringing them pain.2
Preparing the body for viewing also presents very serious halachic problems.
Time is of the Essence
The preparation takes time, and there is a biblical commandment to bury the deceased as quickly as possible. In fact, even regarding a person who was executed by the courts, the Torah warns that leaving the criminal’s corpse on the gallows overnight is considered a “blasphemy of G‑d.”5 The need for a timely burial is so strong that even the high priest—who zealously avoided all contact with death and impurity—was obligated to perform the burial if no one else was able to.6
Tampering with the Dead
In order to make it look pleasant, the body is surgically “restored” by manipulating it, inserting various devices to support its features, draining it of all blood and fluids, injecting it with chemicals, covering
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