It took me a while to figure out how to write “tchotchkes” in English. I went through a few versions – czoczkes, tshotshkes, chachkas, tchatchkes… - before settling on the spelling chosen by Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster.
Anyway, to cite the first two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article:
Tchotchke (originally from a Slavic word for "toys" (Polish: cacka, Russian: цацки)), adapted to Yiddish טשאַטשקע tshatshke, trinket, are small toys, knickknacks, baubles, trinkets or kitsch. The term has a connotation of worthlessness or disposability, as well as tackiness, and was long used in the Jewish-American community and in the regional speech of New York City.
The word may also refer to swag, in the sense of the logo pens, keyfobs and other promotional freebies dispensed at trade shows, conventions and similar large events. Also, stores that sell cheap souvenirs in tourist areas like Times Square and Venice Beach are sometimes called tchotchke shops.
I use the term here in its kitsch sense, to describe a funeral product brought to my attention by a local company a few years ago. [I first mentioned this product here, and have now found time to tell the story.]
The company is Israeli, kibbutz-owned; they work with concrete here in the US, sending over Israeli employees for a few years at a time. Corporate management came to me some time back to present their new idea: Ornamental casket liners made from Israeli earth.
They had manufactured, if I remember correctly, a pressed-earth piece displaying a מגן דוד (“star of David”), to place beneath the person’s head. There were a few other pressed-earth pieces, as well, with obvious Israel connotations – the horizon of Yerushalayim, the kotel hamaaravi, that sort of thing. And they wanted my הסכמה, my approbation, to show that this was a halachically acceptable burial accessory.
This was an interesting problem:
On one hand: Without a doubt, such an item would be halachically acceptable. Jewish tradition expects a body to be buried in contact with the earth, to the extent possible. Further, we customarily use Israeli earth as part of the Chevra Kadisha’s preparation of the body. This company had simply found a way to monetize the Israeli earth by converting it into a product people would buy. Why not offer it to people?
On the other hand: Accessorizing the funeral would go against the grain of Jewish burial tradition dating back to Rabban Gamliel’s insistence on being buried in plain white canvas. We use the simplest possible casket and תכריכין (shrouds) because we don’t want to embarrass anyone who cannot afford something nicer – so I wouldn’t want to endorse an innovation which would result in higher costs, and embarrass people, at such a sensitive time, into paying for something they don’t need.
I shudder to imagine the potential next step - commemorative items like the aforementioned keyfobs, pens, et al. Maybe, eventually, a trowel embossed with the profile of the deceased and displaying the logo, "My parents went to X's funeral and all I got was this lousy shovel." There are no limits to poor taste.
In the end, I consulted with a halachic authority whose words I greatly respect, and he confirmed the latter view. I declined to give them a letter of approval.
I must confess that my refusal nags at me; I don’t feel comfortable mixing fuzzy values issues into a clearcut מותר/אסור decision process. But that’s what פסק (issuing a halachic ruling) is about – seeing not only the nuts-and-bolts, but the greater machine as well.