Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Funeral Tchotchkes

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.


  1. I'd say that your slippery slope argument is pretty strong here. One does not need to look far to find examples of commercialism running wild in the Judaic world. One example: eight nights of presents.

  2. i hope later this winter to finish my research on our own forgotten earth, mt. sinai cemetery. formed by german jews around 1873, this is the oldest jewish institution in allentown. (it is located within the south western part of fairview cemetery) it remained relevant with reformed jews until ki started its own cemetery. in 2006 a 103 year old man was buried there, the first(and last) burial there in 38 years. although i have involved both the local rabbinate and federation in this project, in my opinion the problems there remain unresolved. anybody interested in more information is welcome to contact me.

  3. Thanks, Isaac. I am chagrined by the presents, too.

  4. In this situation, you weren't even paskening. It seems to me that if a congregant had come to you asking if they could include that in their relative's casket and you had said no for the "public policy" reasons you mention, your nagging feeling would be more justified. But a haskama is more than just a muttar/assur thing - the question is inherently "Is this a good or bad thing for the community." By refusing to give a haskama, you stated that this is not something to be encouraged, not necessarily that it's assur.

  5. Coming soon: Goody bags to be given out during Shiva.

  6. i agree with Michael Kopinsky — it's not like you told them "it's asur to make/sell these things", you just refused to publicly support the industry.

    If this were a geirut or kashrut case, where not giving an ishur or 'not recommending' a hekhsher implies that there's something wrong, that would be different. But here you didn't take a stand *against* the proposition, you just didn't take a stand *for* it.

  7. Michael, Steg-
    I hear, although I am still mulling this one. I'm not sure the distinctions are that clear.

    You mean you haven't seen those already? Must be an East Coast thing.

  8. i came back a few weeks ago from israel and shlepped with me about 25 pounds of colored sand from machtesh rimon. if my wife doesn't use it for her crafts projects, maybe we can go into business together and sell it. it is actually against the law to bring it into the US, so i imagine we could demand a high price for it.

  9. Lion-
    Great. Illegal chevra kadisha behavior. Just what we need; thanks a lot.