In preparing to officiate at a funeral yesterday, I met with a family to make the arrangements and prepare the eulogy. I informed the mourning children that they might consider wearing an old garment at the funeral so that we could rip it before the ceremony (“tear keriah”) as is traditionally done. The response I received was the first I had ever received of its kind. The son told me that he would not do it. He said that for his father, he would only tear his nicest new garment. His father deserved it. I was very inspired by his unique commitment and how much this ritual meant to him.
There are many meaningful ways to mourn for loved ones; excessive spending on tombstones, however, is not the best Jewish choice.
The Chofetz Chaim taught that more important than saying kaddish for a deceased parent or buying a nice memorial tombstone is doing chesed, acts of kindness in their honor (Ahavat Chesed 2:15). He suggests that using funds to donate books to a synagogue or establish a loan fund for the poor is more important and useful than purchasing a grand deluxe monument for a cemetery.
While perhaps 40 percent of Americans opt for cremation, most still choose burial, which usually involves a tombstone or some other grave marker. While scant data are available for the cost involved, the “average” cost of a headstone or tombstone is often estimated at $1,500-2,000. A simple grave marker can cost as little as $200, single or double granite monuments in a Jewish cemetery cost anywhere from just under $1,000 to $4,000, while more elaborate inscribed grave markers cost $7,000 or more and upright headstones reach $10,000 or more.
While lower than the costs incurred by Christians (who often require embalming, rental of a funeral home for several days, etc.), a Jewish funeral in the West tends to follow the lead and can still be very expensive: The average cost of a Jewish funeral can be low ($500-$4,000), medium ($4,000-$6,000, as offered by the Jewish Burial Society or similar groups) or high ($10,000-$15,000), mostly depending on the casket chosen. The purchase of a plot (and additional liner or vault) and the fee for opening and closing the grave adds several hundred to several thousand dollars to the fee.
Around the world, there are differing attitudes toward grave markers. In Asia, Hindus and Buddhists customarily cremate their dead, so there are no tombstones. In the West, many cemeteries have become tourist attractions, where people visit the burial places of famous artists, sculptors, composers, performers, and political figures. Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery and Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) are two that draw many thousands of tourists annually. The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, in which notable Czech Jews like the Maharal are buried, draws a steady stream of tourists who tread the narrow passageways. Some object to the commercialism, as you must pay a fee for a ticket to a number of Jewish historical sites and then join with tourists whose attitudes may not be appropriate. Others defend the practice on the grounds that the money raised helps preserve the old Jewish section of Prague. In the United States, people visit Forest Hills to see the graves of Hollywood actors or Woodlawn cemetery in New York City, among others, to see the elaborately sculpted graves and mausoleums of famous historical figures.
Does an elaborate tombstone, or a cemetery that is a tourist attraction, advance the ideals that our ancestors stood for? Would it not be better for us to use our funds to honor the dead by helping the vulnerable in society or devoting time to bring justice to the world? The Shelah HaKadosh taught that one’s acts of chesed and tzedakah can not only salvage a parent from a harsh judgment in the world to come, but it can move them straight through the gates of the Garden of Eden.
Jewish law forbids speeding up the return of the human body to the earth (through cremation) or slowing it down (through mummification). Rather, we respectfully put the body in the modest shrouds and return it to the Creator through the earth. For many the grief of the mourning experience is compounded by the stress of the accompanying financial burden. We should be sure to change the precedent from being so prohibitively expensive.
The Mishnah teaches that in addition to the behavioral aspects of mourning, that there is a significant emotional component arguing that “grief is only of the heart” (she-ein aninut ela ba-lev; Sanhedrin 6:8). To fulfill the mitzvah of comforting the mourning (nichum aveilim), we should be sure to model modest mourning which focuses more on healing, growth, and kindness and less on grandiose conspicuous consumption to honor the deceased. I've already made the case for overly extravagant celebrations but the same is true for how we mourn.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, the Founder and C.E.O. of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” In 2012 and 2013, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."