Project Genesis

LifeCycle Events

Death, Burial, and Bereavement

Shoveling Dirt on the Coffin

Question: Why do family and close friends cover the coffin with a few handfuls of dirt at a funeral?

Answer: A rabbi once told me of an experience he had in the greater NY area. He was called in to conduct a funeral for a woman whose relatives were not only non-observant, they weren’t even vaguely familiar with the traditional customs of Jewish burial. As the rabbi and a few of the assembled finally took shovels in hand and began filling in the grave with earth, someone among the crowd murmured how “barbaric” it seemed to do this dirty work in public and by hand.

The rabbi stopped for a moment and taught a lesson:

“Mrs. So & So has left this world. Just yesterday, there were so many ways through which we could show her kindness, in which we could give to her. But now, she has no earthly needs. There is no longer anything we can give her.”

“Except for one thing.”

“We can perform for her one final kindness: seeing that her body, the vessel of her soul, is honorably and properly buried. This is the last act of kindness we can directly perform for Mrs. So & So. So shouldn’t we do it for her in as involved a way as we possibly can?”

Burial in the ground is a Torah commandment (see Deuteronomy 21:23, and Talmud, Sanhedrin 46b). Abraham, the first Jew, purchased a burial ground in Hebron and laid his beloved wife, Sarah, to rest there. The Torah further records many times over examples of how our wise ancestors buried their dead with dignity.

Thus, it is a great mitzvah to participate in covering the lowered coffin with earth. (However, the first few shovels full are tossed in with the back of the blade, to recognize how emotionally difficult it is to begin performing this mitzvah; it is hard for us to let go.)

Mystically, we are taught that the soul hovers over its body until after burial. Only then is it free to return to Heaven, from whence it came.

Further, burial in earth is likened to the planting of a seed. Just as a seed decomposes in the ground before its metamorphosis into a tree, so too, the decomposing of the body in earth prepares it for its eventual rebirth into a renewed world after the coming of Moshiach (the Messiah, speedily in our days).

The important thing to remember is that a Jewish funeral is really called a “levaya” in Hebrew. The word, levaya, literally means an “escorting” (related to the word, Levi). We must be conscious that what we’re really doing at a levaya is escorting our dearly departed out from this limited world and into the world without limits: Olam HaBah (the World To Come).

Then it all makes sense.

May we have only happy occassions,
Shlomo Shulman

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