Question: A non-Jewish friend of mine lost a three-year-old child and put his teddy bear in the coffin. Would a Jewish parent in a similar situation be able to do the same?
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.
Jewish law generally frowns on placing items in the grave alongside the deceased. There are at least two reasons for this; one practical, the other more theological. The practical reason can be found in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 349:), which states that any item designated for burial such as a casket or shroud cannot then be used for any other purpose.
By extension, the Shulchan Arukh renders forbidden for retrieval and use any item deliberately placed inside the grave to accompany the dead. Since Jewish law is strongly opposed to unnecessary waste (ba'al taschit), it calls on the bystanders to prevent this happening and to save the item from being rendered useless. It even goes so far as to say that it is a mitzvah to preserve the item and to return it to its rightful owner as this is a form of hashavat aveidah, returning a lost article to its owner.
However, one is cautioned not to return it immediately to the grief-stricken mourner but to wait until the grief subsides, lest the mourner throw it back into the grave. The Shulchan Aruch concludes that if this were to happen, the person who prematurely returned the item would be held responsible for its destruction and liable to pay monetary restitution. This law underscores Judaism's deep aversion to waste and helps explain why we avoid burying anything with the dead.
The philosophical reason is based on Judaism's understanding of death and the afterlife. Almost all ancient peoples, and in particular the Egyptians, believed in an afterlife that was in essence not all that different from the current life and as such the dead required food, money, company and, in the case of the Vikings, a ship to help ease the journey into the next realm.
Judaism rejects this materialistic and puerile conception. It sees the afterlife as a place devoid of all physicality and resemblance to this world. It is a world of spirit where the soul basks in divine glory. Placing physical items in the grave undermines this lofty concept as it implies that the deceased might have some use for them in the afterlife.
The only exception is the burial of tattered scared books such as bibles or prayer books. This is not because we believe that the deceased will require them in the afterlife but rather it is a sign of deep respect for the sacred word.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.
At first glance, this seems to smack of pagan rituals, similar to Egyptians putting useful items for the afterlife into their pyramids.
That is not the Jewish way. Death brings an end to life as we know it, and we do not plan for continuing what we have done in this world in whatever lies ahead. The coffin is plain and the body is in a simple shroud, with no distinction between rich and poor.
It is true that we place disused prayer books in graves, but that is not done with any thought that the deceased will read them: we bury them in order to give a respectful end to sacred texts whose life is also over.
But an entirely different motive lies behind the request of those parents : they are reacting with the instinct natural to every parent, that of trying to protect their child. Rationally they know that he is dead, but they still want to look after him, especially now that he is beyond their care. What better than to let his favourite teddy take on the task?
Of course, they know that it does not make sense literally, but emotionally it does. Moreover, it helps them cope with their grief; perhaps it also lessens their sense of failure to save their child from harm in this world, even though that may have been totally out of their power. The image of the child not being alone in a dark cold grave, but kept warm by his teddy, is enormously powerful.
Such requests are made by Jewish parents too, and I have willingly agreed every time. Why not, and what would a rabbi achieve by denying them that comfort ?
There are also adults who leave special instructions: a 94-year-old-woman wanted to be buried in her wedding dress, while a man who had played cricket all his life asked for his bat to be placed in his coffin. Bizarre to some, yet highly meaningful to them.
These requests were partly a statement of identity and a reflection of what had been important to them in life, and partly a way of exerting a little control on the one situation that is largely beyond our control.
In both cases, it helped them face death, while it gave a certain satisfaction to their immediate family to know that they had carried out the person's last wishes faithfully.