Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

This afternoon and Wednesday I’m teaching my Intro classes about Jewish Death & Mourning. I am pretty sure that when they look at the syllabus, they are thinking about funerals, and they are mostly identified with (1) the dead person or (2) the mourners. That’s normal and human, to picture a topic with ourselves in the center.

My task as teacher is to teach them how to be members of a Jewish community that has mourners in it. True, sometimes they will be the mourners, and someday every one of us will be in that casket at center stage, but for most of our Jewish lives, we’re in the “mourner support” roles. And face it, that’s where the mitzvahs are.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to bury one’s dead. No doubt about that. But there are many other mitzvot that come under the general heading of “comforting the mourner,” most of which don’t sound like a modern idea of “comforting” at all. Here are ways we comfort the mourner:

  • Support our synagogue, so that there are clergy to assist mourners.
  • Support our local Jewish funeral home, so that Jewish mourners do not have the added stress of explaining everything.
  • Show up at funerals, even for people we barely know.
  • Show up at shiva, even if we are not “close” to the family.
  • Offer to babysit, run errands, wash dishes, answer the door during shiva.
  • Sit quietly with a mourner at shiva, just listening.
  • Refrain from telling mourners how they should feel “by now.”
  • Alert the rabbi if a mourner appears to be slipping into depression or otherwise in trouble.
  • Call or write weeks after the funeral, just to “check in.”
  • Say hello to mourners when we see them at synagogue.
  • Invite widows and widowers to events or to dinner in our homes.
  • Make sure that no mourner in our community feels abandoned.

The English word “comfort” in modern usage generally transmits an image of a pat on the back, accompanied by “there, there” or magical words of healing. Grief cannot be fixed by magical means. It can only happen in its own time. We can help by supporting, by being present to the mourner.

Those of us who have been mourners know how important this sort of support can be. Perhaps we received it; perhaps we didn’t. One route to self-healing is to take our sadly-won knowledge and turn it outward, making sure that the next mourner is not left to grieve alone.

Why Go to Funerals?

Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA
Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

As regular readers know, sometimes I get topics from looking at the searches that brought people to my blog (thank you,, for the great info!) Here’s a great one:

How is it a good thing to go to a funeral?

Let me rephrase it just a bit:

Why would anyone in their right mind go to a funeral?

Jewish tradition gives us two big reasons to go to a funeral. The first, levayat hamet [accompanying the dead] is exactly what it sounds like: we accompany the dead person to the grave. The reason behind that is that dead bodies are vulnerable. They can’t defend themselves. Bad things can happen to them. So we accompany the dead person to the grave to be sure that he or she is put in the ground with respect for the person that they were.

The second reason to go to a funeral is menachem avel [comforting the mourner]. “Comforting” does not mean “make them feel all better” – that’s impossible. Comforting, in this context, means simply being with them, letting them know that people care. You do not need to “say the right thing” – all you really need to do is to avoid saying the wrong thing. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be silent.  “I am so sorry for your loss” is perfectly fine. The traditional words of comfort are “May you be comforted among the mourners of Israel and Jerusalem” – another reminder to the mourner that he or she is not alone.

Things not to say:  “You’ll get over it.” “He was old.” “He’s in a better place.” “She’s better off.” or even “She’s watching you from heaven.” You have no proof that any of these things are true, so don’t say them.

Funerals are uncomfortable if you are not used to them. Jewish funerals are generally quite short and simple. There are a few traditional prayers and psalms, and either the rabbi or the family stand up to talk a bit about the person who died. At graveside, there are brief prayers and then family and friends take a shovel of dirt and put it on the casket in the grave. These things are done to help bring home the reality of the death and to help the mourning process get moving.

The more funerals you attend, the more accustomed to them you will become. For tips on attending your first Jewish funeral, check out this article. Death is a part of life. It is a great kindness to mourners to reach out to them when they are grieving, and especially to attend the funeral.

How is it a good thing to go to a funeral? It is a good thing, because it is a kind thing. No one should stand alone by the grave of someone they love.