Sotah 13a ~ Metal Coffins and Green Burials

Joseph's Egyptian Coffin

סוטה יג, א

ומנין היה יודע משה רבינו היכן יוסף קבור אמרו סרח בת אשר נשתיירה מאותו הדור הלך משה אצלה אמר לה כלום את יודעת היכן יוסף קבור אמרה לו ארון של מתכת עשו לו מצרים וקבעוהו בנילוס הנהר כדי שיתברכו מימיו

הלך משה ועמד על שפת נילוס אמר לו יוסף יוסף הגיע העת שנשבע הקב"ה שאני גואל אתכם והגיעה השבועה שהשבעת את ישראל אם אתה מראה עצמך מוטב אם לאו הרי אנו מנוקין משבועתך מיד צף ארונו של יוסף

How did Moses know the place where Joseph was buried? — It is said that Serah, daughter of Asher, was a survivor of that generation. Moses went to her and asked: 'Do you know where Joseph was buried?' She answered him, 'The Egyptians made a metal coffin for him which they set in the river Nile so that its waters would be blessed'.
Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile and said: 'Joseph, Joseph! the time has arrived about which God, swore, "I will deliver you", and the oath which you imposed on the Jewish People [to take your bones with them out of Egypt] has reached the time of fulfilment; if you show yourself, it is well and good; but if you do not show yourself, we are absolved of your oath'.  Immediately Joseph's coffin floated to the surface.

I can still recall the thrill of seeing the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun displayed at the British Museum in 1972. The boy king had been buried inside three nested coffins: The outermost one was made of cypress overlaid with gold foil.  Inside that was another wooden coffin with a gold overlay.  And inside that was a third coffin, this time made of solid gold.   We don't have any detailed description of Joseph's coffin from the Talmud, although the tradition that it was made of metal is a fascinating, since so many of the Egyptian coffins we know of today are made of stone rather than metal.     

Wooden Coffins from Jericho

When a Jewish cemetery outside Jericho was excavated in the late 1970s, a team of archeologists led by Rachel Hachlili discovered both wooden and stone coffins. The wooden coffins were made of local cypress or sycamore, and "[f]rom one to three individuals were found in each coffin, usually an adult and a child but occasionally two or even three adults, each lying on a leather mattress one above the other."  These excavations revealed that there were "two distinct burial customs among the Jews of Jericho. During the 1st century B.C. they buried their dead in wooden coffins; suddenly, at the beginning of the 1st century A.D., they began to practice secondary burial in limestone ossuaries. No completely satisfactory explanation of this change has been found..."

Metal Coffins in America, and In Israel Too

The author Jessica Mitford was best probably known for her classic 1963 book The American Way of Death, an expose of the funeral industry in the US. Shortly before her death in 1996, Mitford updated the book which was later published as The American Way of Death Revisited.  In that book, Mitford noted that until the eighteenth century, few people except the very rich were buried in coffins.  "The "casket," and particularly the metal casket, is a phenomenon of modern America, unknown in past days and in other parts of the world." This statement appears not be entirely correct however, as we have seen the Talmud describe Joseph's coffin as having been made of metal.  Even if that description was based on rabbinic imagination and not archeological facts, lead coffins have in fact been found in several excavations in Israel - though they did not necessarily contain Jewish remains. These include the Netanya coffin from the 3rd-5th century C.E, and the Ashdod coffin, discovered in 1986 in dunes outside of the modern city of Ashdod. (These, and other lead coffins were described in a 1986 paper published in the Israel Exploration Journal titled, rather blandly, More Lead Coffins from Israel.)  Mitford noted that the metal coffin was an innovation of the nineteenth century that caused concern. Church authorities protested that "if parishioners were to get into the habit of burying their dead in coffins made proof against normal decay, in a few generations there would be no burial space left." Good point.  

The ‘casket,’ and particularly the metal casket, is a phenomenon of modern America, unknown in past days and in other parts of the world.
— Jessica Mitford. The American Way of Death Revisited. Vintage Books 2000. p146

The Simplicity of Jewish Coffins

Jewish burial practices have of course varied over time and by location.  In Israel today, most religious funerals are conducted without a coffin (military funerals are an exception), which can be a jarring experience when seen for the first time. This is a change from talmudic times, when the body was first placed in a cave and some time later the bones that remained were gathered into a box  (ירושלמי ונציה מועד קטן פרק א טור ג).      

Tom Jokinen's 2010 book Curtains: Adventures of an undertaker in training is the last place I would have looked for an endorsement of Jewish burial practices. But you'll find it right there, on page 262, at the end of a chapter on the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association trade show, held, where else, in Las Vegas. There he encounters several innovative products, including "Shiva Shades, paper blinds for Jewish families, to cover mirrors during the seven days of shiva. The paper unfurls like an accordion and sticks to the glass with an adhesive strip. "No more cumbersome bedsheets."  But Jokinen then reflects on the fancy coffins and expensive funerals that are sold to families at a time they are most vulnerable, and has this to say:

I suppose if pressed to choose one way or the other I'd have to say I'm against death...I need to face up to its absurdity, find meaning in the mess. How?..Then it comes to me: I've already seen it. A simple act without the artifice of embalming or baroque funerary product. Just a direct application of body to ground where it's left to contribute to the great cycle: ashes to ashes and all that, back to Mother Earth in a shroud and a plain wooden box. Instead of confrontation with death through commerce, you face it, fill the hole by hand and then get on with the hard work of mourning..."I've seen the future...And it's Jewish."