The American Jewish Way of Death

How We Have Buried Our Dead Over the Millennia

Open Casket: The body of Benjamin Schlesinger, a onetime managing editor of the Forward, is displayed in the lobby of the Forward building in 1932.
Forward Association
Open Casket: The body of Benjamin Schlesinger, a onetime managing editor of the Forward, is displayed in the lobby of the Forward building in 1932.

By Regina Sandler-Phillips

Published July 30, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

In August 1963, “The American Way of Death” by Jessica Mitford sold out its first printing on its publication date and topped The New York Times best-seller list for weeks.

Inspired by her husband, Robert Treuhaft, a radical Jewish labor lawyer who was an unnamed co-author of the book, Mitford brought a sparkling British wit to her investigation of the American funeral industry. She focused on such practices as embalming bodies for viewing in ornate, expensive caskets, demonstrating how funeral industry profits had become dependent on these items — and on the inducement of bereaved families, at their most vulnerable, to pay for them.

Mitford’s (and Treuhaft’s) book struck a responsive chord among millions of Americans, prompted new Federal Trade Commission regulations and gave a significant boost to what is known as the funeral consumer movement.

Fifty years later, what can we learn from “The American Way of Death” as we consider our current Jewish choices for responding to life’s final chapter? How have funeral consumer issues been influenced by both religious and secular Jews, and how has the Forward itself figured in the mix?

According to the Babylonian Talmud, the earliest Jewish funeral consumer advocates were rabbis. Confronting the excesses of their time, they noted that “the poor were shamed” by practices that highlighted socioeconomic inequalities in death. These included viewing the faces of the deceased rich while covering the famine-disfigured faces of the deceased poor, and displaying the deceased rich on an ornamented couch while the deceased poor were brought out for burial on a plain bier.

“At first, burial of the dead was for their relatives more difficult than their death [because of the expense], to the point at which relatives would leave their dead and flee,” as the Talmud describes it. The rabbis decreed that the faces of all deceased should be covered, and that all should be brought out on a plain bier — “for the honor of the poor.” One prominent rabbi left instructions that he be buried in the least expensive shrouds, which also became the ritual standard for centuries.

Notwithstanding these and related reforms for simplicity and equality in death, what evolved as the chevra kadisha, the sacred burial fellowship, was rejected by growing numbers of Jews from the Emancipation onward, along with other institutional forms of traditional Judaism.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.