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!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • 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.