After passing through an unlit industrial kitchen and descending a flight of sawdust-covered stairs, the boys arrived in a cold windowless basement where two tables with wooden dowels, yellow glue, black metal clamps and unadorned sheets of wood — everything necessary for building a casket — had been prepared. Moments after the 12 teenagers divided themselves between the two workstations in Shaare Torah Congregation’s unfinished basement, construction began. Mallets and instructions were distributed.
Strike the dowels with vigor, cautioned Rabbi Daniel Wasserman.
None of the 250 caskets built by Gesher HaChaim Jewish Burial Society had ever ruptured, but Wasserman had seen others whose faulty construction yielded horrific effects.
As the students oriented themselves to the tools — none of the teenagers had constructed a casket before — Wasserman interspersed directions with storytelling. Members of the Jewish burial society had assembled caskets for nearly eight years, but two boxes were worth mentioning:
In 2013, Yaakov Posin, then a student at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, was among those who participated in an after-school woodshop club run by Jason Small, a Squirrel Hill resident and Shaare Torah congregant. Small helped the students weld pipes to create a menorah and use wood to make a kitchen knife block. When it came time for the final project, Small invited Wasserman, who encouraged the students to apply their skills to casket making. The students agreed.
It was impossible to foresee whose body would ultimately occupy the container, but shortly after completion, Wasserman received a call. T.J. Posin, a Wheeling, West Virginia, resident, had died. Wasserman took the student-made chest, traveled across state lines, retrieved the body and performed the pertinent rituals. During the burial, which he co-officiated with the then local rabbi, Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, Wasserman noted that Posin’s casket was built by a volunteer teenage corps — whose members included Posin’s grandson.
The first responsibility of burying the dead rests with the family, then the community. That’s the way it was done for thousands of years, Wasserman said at the time.
The second casket tale involved Louis Zelkowitz, a Pittsburgh-based driver.
Zelkowitz’s mother Reva died on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015. Shortly after nightfall, when Shabbat ended on Nov. 7, Wasserman and Louis Zelkowitz descended the darkened staircase at Shaare Torah, turned on the fluorescent lights and built a casket. Hours later, on Sunday, Nov. 8, Reva Zelkowitz’s body and the box her son had built were buried at a graveside service at Agudath Achim Cemetery in Forest Hills, Pennsylvania.
As Wasserman narrated each story to the 12 students, he moved between the tables with power tools in hand. Interrupting his words was a finicky air compressor whose cacophonous rumblings added to the chorus of a buzzing circular saw and polymer staples blasting wood.
There are two purposes to having students perform these deeds, he said: “Number one, to demystify the process; and number two, to get everybody to have a part in the mitzvah.”
Months earlier, Rabbi Elisar Admon, a Hillel Academy teacher, approached David Chudnow of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh about the prospect of building caskets on Dec. 25.
For nearly 20 years, volunteers had participated in Mitzvah Day, a Dec. 25 Federation program that encourages people to join area groups to work on projects including visiting the elderly, distributing food to the hungry or delivering handwritten notes of gratitude to local first responders. Hillel Academy students and staff had long contributed to Mitzvah Day, and Admon was eager for his students to participate again but wanted them to experience something different than in years past.
Chudnow, who this year oversaw 900 individuals partake in 60 different tasks, was immediately receptive.
“I love that Hillel Academy took the initiative to suggest a new project,” said Chudnow.
Mitzvah Day enables people to perform many good deeds throughout the day, but casket making occupies a special place in the history of Jewish practice, he explained.
The Talmud recounts that millenia ago rich and poor were segregated in death. Whereas the wealthy received opulent treatment upon demise, the poor were often made to feel ashamed. Rabban Gamliel II, a first-century Jewish leader and successor of Johanan ben Zakkai, demonstrated the frivolity and ill-intended consequences of such behavior by having his own body, upon death, wrapped in the simplest of shrouds. Rabban Gamliel’s act served as a model and became the norm for future generations, notes the Talmud.
In Pittsburgh, when Gesher HaChaim builds a casket, not only does the construction of a modest wooden box certify the belief that “rich, poor, known, unknown” are buried alike, but also the idea that “each casket is built by a member of the community,” said Wasserman.
By having a community build its own caskets, “it puts a frame, not only a non-commercial frame around it, but another Jewish lifecycle community coming together, cradle of the community, frame around it.”
In the United States, coffin costs can vary. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s “Funeral Costs and Pricing Checklist,” consumers can expect to pay approximately $2,000 per casket, though prices can soar to $10,000 for mahogany, bronze or copper varieties.
Lincoln Heritage Life Insurance Company encourages purchasers to defray expenses by shopping from “third-party retailers like Amazon and Walmart.”
Those options range widely. Amazon lists a biodegradable pine option from Kent Caskets for $500 with free shipping. Walmart includes Overnight Casket’s Lincoln poplar model with mahogany finish, not including delivery, for $1,549.41.
At Gesher HaChaim, a standard 6-by-2-foot casket costs $275. If there’s “any type of financial hardship,” however, that figure drops, explained Wasserman. The $275 represents the cost of materials, replacement of tools and occasional hiring of carpenters when volunteers are unavailable, he continued.
Midway through the Dec. 25 afternoon affair, the students broke for prayers. After resuming construction, several of the teenage engineers spoke about the day’s activities.
“I didn’t know there would be so much teamwork involved in building one of these,” said Aaron Kraut, a Hillel Academy senior.
“It was pretty cool learning how this was made,” said Tzvikah Guterson, a Hillel Academy junior. “It’s a lot more hands-on than other things we’ve done. It’s not that complicated. It shows that anybody could do this.”
Approximately eight volunteers regularly meet for casket building, said Wasserman. Most of the members are men, but anyone interested is welcome to participate. “It’s not rocket science, but you do have to be careful,” he said.
Throughout the day, the students safely followed instructions.
Admon was pleased with the volunteer activity and said classroom time would be dedicated to follow-up discussion: “Before they got here, everything was very abstract,” he said. “It will be interesting to see what types of questions they have.”
Even before arriving back to class, several students were already thinking about the larger issues.
“I thought it was going to be a lot creepier — I feel like anything associated with death is inherently creepy — but this was pretty cool,” said Reuven Kanal, a Hillel Academy junior.
Building caskets, apart from illuminating an often hushed topic, enables young people to understand an important value, explained Wasserman: “A community comes together to bury its own,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, they’re going to learn about this big mitzvah and they’re going to realize, ‘You know I did something. I had an experience that most people don’t have.’”
Elements of the lesson were already understood, noted Kraut: “Working together as a team will help us with basketball, in school and in life.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.