Many traditional Jewish funeral customs to which we have become accustomed actually developed over time. The Gemara relates a series of traditions that were representative of divisions between the upper and lower classes, all of which were changed in order that poor people would not be embarrassed. Among those traditions were:
- The seudat havra’a – the meal that is traditionally brought to the house of mourning by neighbors. Wealthy people brought the meal in baskets of gold and silver, while poor people brought it in simple woven baskets. Everyone was instructed to use simple woven baskets.
- The wine that accompanied the meal. Wealthy people drank out of white glass, while poor people drank from colored glass, which was less expensive. Everyone was instructed to drink the wine from colored glasses.
- The way the deceased was laid out. A wealthy person’s face was left exposed when he was being buried, while a poor person’s was covered up because his face was dark from famine. The decision was made to cover up everyone’s faces.
Rabbeinu Yehonatan points out that there are two possible explanations for the concern expressed by the Gemara that poor people were embarrassed. It could mean that cheaper things were brought to the home of the poor mourner, which was an embarrassment, or alternatively it might be a concern for the person who came to comfort someone and was embarrassed by the meager contribution that he was making to the meal.
The Gemara concludes with the comment that burial customs became so lavish that the dead person’s relatives found the burial to be more difficult than the death itself – to the extent that people would abandon the body and flee – leaving the burial to the community. Rabban Gamliel put an end to this by insisting that his funeral be a simple one, and he was buried in a simple linen shroud, which led the people to give up expensive funerals. Rabban Gamliel’s statement was seen as an important decision, and in the time of the Talmud when there was a custom to drink a series of cups of wine at the home of the mourner, one of the cups was dedicated to Rabban Gamliel for having established this new custom.