York Casket Builds For The Final Journey

September 25, 2009
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Part of Bill Shaffer’s job is mining the Bible for names — Shem, Obadiah, Ezekiel, Asher and such.

What he’s naming is caskets — specifically, a line marketed to the Jewish community and constructed entirely of wood to comply with religious burial standards.

Among its peers, York Casket Co., where Shaffer works in marketing, is known for its all-wood product line. The plant in Manchester Township is the country’s leading supplier of caskets made specifically with the Jewish community in mind, Shaffer said.

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“We’ve been making ‘Jewish’ caskets since 1931,” he said.

York Casket has changed ownership several times since and is now a division of Pittsburgh-based Matthews International.

More than 300 craftsmen and women at the Manchester Township plant help make the wooden caskets and their components. The 15,000 caskets produced annually for the Jewish community comprise 21 percent of the plant’s business, Shaffer said.

The preference for simple wood caskets stems from Jewish tradition. The objective is returning the body to the earth quickly and naturally, so the entire casket should be biodegradable.

Caskets for Jewish burial contain no metal nails or hinges. Instead, craftsmen use wooden dowels and fasteners, and their staple guns fire U-shaped pieces of organic, silica polymer that will break down over time.

Traditionally, Jewish burial takes place 24 to 48 hours after death. Bodies are usually not embalmed, permitting quicker decomposition and the return “to dust” as stated in Genesis. Some coffins have holes drilled in the bottom to hasten the process.

The deceased are not dressed in their finest but wrapped in a plain, white burial shroud. The simplicity of the burial rites — a plain, wooden casket and no dressing of the body for public viewing — seeks to reaffirm that all are equal in death, whether rich or poor.

Next week, many Jews will wear white garments symbolic of the burial shroud in their observance of Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown Sunday.

Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, invites reflection on life and death. Jews believe it’s the day God weighs your deeds, considers your repentance and determines your fate for the next year.

“The color white is a symbol of purity but also of equality. We all come (to the synagogue) dressed in the same color we’re buried in,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan of Temple Beth Israel in York Township.

“The concept is we approach God on this day of reckoning as we would death: As equals.”

In accordance with Jewish law, the all-wood caskets are never manufactured on the Sabbath, said Richy Adlman, market manager for York Casket’s all-wood products.

“I would say 98 percent of Jews use an all-wood constructed product,” Adlman said.

York Casket distributes the caskets throughout the country, finding the biggest markets for Jewish funeral homes in New York, Florida, California and the Chicago area, Adlman said.

While simple pine caskets used to be preferred, funeral directors say Jewish families now expect a range of options.

“Times have changed,” said Jason Goldstein, who is president of Kavod, a membership group of independent Jewish funeral homes.

“Unless you’re Orthodox, nine times out of 10, they don’t want the traditional pine,” said Goldstein, whose family owns funeral homes in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J.

York Casket has tried to respond to that demand, while keeping its products simply designed and manufactured in accordance with Jewish tradition, Adlman said.

“No ornate carving or corners, ostentatious beading or colors,” he said. “We try to reach as many ranges of Jewish people as there are around the country.”

York Casket offers dozens of models, including the plain pine box with no finish or interior lining. On the higher end, it distributes solid mahogany and cherry wood caskets with lots of shine. Retail prices for the all-wood caskets range from $500 to more than $10,000. The more expensive items reflect the craftmanship of hand carving or up to three weeks of staining, polishing and finishing, Aldman said.

Last year, York Casket started reaching out to the growing “green” burial market for those people interested in returning to the earth directly and with little impact on the environment. If “green” burials sound a lot like Jewish burials, you’re right.

“Jews have been doing green burials by default for thousands of years. That’s also true of Muslims,” said Mark Harris, author of “Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial.”

Green burials avoid embalming (and its toxic formaldehyde), metal caskets and burial vaults that are standard in modern funerals. (Unlike most U.S. cemeteries, “green” burial grounds don’t require a vault or concrete box.)

However, a casket suitable for Jewish burial doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “green” or produced in an environmentally sustainable way, said Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council.

Sehee’s nonprofit group encourages the funeral industry to abide by voluntary standards for green burial, using, for example, plant-derived or recycled materials for construction.

Caskets marketed to the Jewish community often use stains and finishes in the manufacturing process that contain toxic or hazardous chemicals, Sehee said. Coffin linings are sometimes cut from synthetic materials and attached with non-environmentally friendly glues.

“We’re looking at toxicity, as well as biodegradability,” Sehee said.

York Casket’s green line is a slightly altered version of its all-wood constructed caskets for the Jewish community, Sehee said.

The line, Naturally Green, was certified last season as an approved provider and has received the same approval this year, Shaffer said.

Source: York Daily Record

Photo: Part of a tour group at York Casket Co., Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan looks on as craftsman Mike Henry drills a hole for a casket s hinge. York Casket in Manchester Township says it s the country s leading supplier of all-wood caskets manufactured for the Jewish community. (DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – JASON PLOTKIN)

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