What are guidelines for Jewish casket construction?
A dear friend asked me to build a casket for his dying father. Of course, I agreed, but because his father is an orthodox Jew, the casket must be kosher. This means no metal fasteners—only pegs and glue. But which glues are kosher?
—Phillip Lawson, Southfield, Michigan
Interesting question, Phillip. We posed it to Don Guillard, product manager at Batesville Casket Company, which manufactures a line of all-wood caskets designed specifically for orthodox Jewish burials. Here's what we learned.
Because Jewish law requires that the body of the deceased be returned to the earth as soon as possible, much of the construction of a kosher casket is intended to ensure that it is quickly and completely biodegradable. This means you should avoid glues with preservative or water-resistant properties. (This eliminates formaldehyde-glue-infused plywoods as well; stick to soft woods, such as pine.) To meet kosher standards, you'll also want to avoid glue with animal by-products, such as traditional hide glues. Fortunately, many yellow wood glues are both synthetic and water-soluble, so you won't have any problems with these polyvinyl acetate (PVA) glues.
But glue is just the start of it. For kosher caskets, there are more standards to meet besides eschewing metal fasteners and components. The bottom of the casket should be constructed from slats with 1⁄8 -1⁄4 " gaps between them (or the bottom must have multiple holes drilled through it) to hasten decomposition. All of the internal components must be biodegradable as well, so only natural linings and paddings, such as cotton and straw, may be used. And these should be fastened with double-faced paper tape (again with no animal by-products in the adhesive) rather than metal or plastic staples.
Additionally, the casket should be of simple design, signifying equality in death. And it must not be constructed on the Sabbath, meaning you'll have to avoid working on it from sundown Friday through one hour past sundown on Saturday.
Finally, because belief systems vary even within the larger religion, it would be wise to discuss the specific interment requirements with the rabbi that oversees the orthodox Jewish cemetery that will be used. And because it is also an intensely personal project for your friend, discuss all the details of the construction with him, both during the design period and as you build.