Death and the Jew by Choice

How can a Jew mourn properly when his family is not Jewish? What about when the mourning traditions of the family involve things that a Jew would never do?

This is a situation that comes up eventually for most people who became Jewish as adults. Someone in the family of origin – the non-Jewish family – dies, and there’s no well-defined path for the Jew to follow. It came up for me a few years ago when my father died. My family is Catholic, and they observed Catholic and southern rituals for death: a “visitation” at the funeral home with the casket open, a funeral Mass, burial in the family plot with a priest in attendance, and a big meal featuring pork and shellfish and other treif afterwards.

In another family, there might be an expectation of cremation and scattering of ashes, or of ashes kept in an urn on the mantlepiece indefinitely. There might be a custom of no ritual at all. Other families may feel that an opulent casket and flowers are the way to show respect for the dead.

First of all, if you are reading this because you have suffered a recent loss, my condolences and sympathy are with you. The loss you feel may be made even worse by the awareness of this difference between your family and yourself. However, there are things to know that may help.

1. Call your rabbi for support and advice. The rabbi will want to know about your loss, and will want to support you in this time. You are not “less Jewish” because your family is non-Jewish: you are a Jew in pain, and your rabbi wants to know what’s going on with you. The fact that the person who died wasn’t Jewish is immaterial. You are a Jewish mourner, and you need the care of your rabbi and community.

2. Recognize that for the majority of your family, the customs they are used to are going to be the most comforting. “Viewings” and “visitations” are also a legitimate way to process loss and begin to grieve. It isn’t our custom to view a dead body, but for some people it is a way of showing respect. If you do not wish to participate in some aspect of the funeral process, you can simply skip that part, or participate minimally. At the funeral of a non-Jewish friend, I did not view the body, but I did visit the family at the funeral home. I simply hung back and did not go into the part of the room where the casket and body were displayed.

3. K’vod ha-met – respect for the dead – is a Jewish value.  By “going along” with funeral arrangements that aren’t in the Jewish tradition, you are honoring the wishes and traditions of the person who died. Making a fuss about the funeral because it does not conform with your present practice would not be respectful. At family meals, do not make a production of kashrut or other Jewish food practices – just take care of yourself and don’t eat anything you don’t want to eat. At the meal after my father’s funeral, I quietly asked in the kitchen if there were some fresh vegetables or fruit available.

4. Mourn as a Jew after the funeral. Jewish mourning practice really begins after the funeral (or in this case, after the customs of the non-Jewish family are observed, whatever they may be.) Call your rabbi or your synagogue and let them know that you will be sitting shiva. Sit shiva, and do it properly, especially after the death of a parent. What happens at shiva is not for the dead person. Shiva is for the mourner who needs to process the enormous change in their reality. Even if the relationship with the parent was not a happy one – especially in such a case! – mourning is necessary. Your Jewish community will show up for you, but they can’t do it unless you ask. The efficient way to ask is to call your rabbi or synagogue.

5. Ask for the help you need. If, reading this, you are thinking, “I wish I’d known that!” know that it is not too late to attend to old wounds. Make an appointment with your rabbi, or write an email, and tell him or her what feels unattended. It may be too late for shiva, but unfinished mourning is a genuine issue and the tradition has resources for that. If you see a pattern here of “ask your rabbi” and “seek out your community,” you are not mistaken. This sort of thing is one of the reasons that joining a comfortable synagogue or other Jewish community is a good idea for every Jew if it is at all possible.

6. Be gentle. If you go to a family funeral, and things do not go well either for you or with the family, know that all funerals are a difficult time. Be as gentle as you can be with yourself and with your fellow mourners. If you wind up eating something you normally would not eat, if you do something you would not ordinarily do because you don’t have the presence of mind to make a better choice, make teshuvah and leave it behind you.

Mourning is a difficult time. There is no easy way to do it. Our tradition offers tremendous resources for the mourner, if only we will make use of them.

A Last Lesson from Jacob & Joseph

"The time drew near for Jacob to die. (1984 illustration by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing)
“The Time Grew Near for Jacob to Die” – Jim Padgett

The end of the book of Genesis offers us two end of life accounts, those of Jacob and Joseph. In their deaths, they leave a legacy not only for their immediate descendants, but for all Jews.

Both are models for us in that they are clear about their wishes while they are still able to convey those wishes. Jacob calls Joseph to him, as the son with executive power, and specifies exactly what he wants long before he needs it: “Bury me with my ancestors, not in Egypt.” Joseph takes an oath to carry out that wish.

Later, when Jacob knows that he is actually near death, he calls all his sons together. First he blesses them. Then he informs them of his wish to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, this time with great specificity: “with my ancestors… in the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan.” He then lists his ancestors and kin who are buried there, teaching them the mitzvah of burial in a family plot.

In his great specificity, and in choosing to speak with the brothers as a group, he is a role model for end of life instructions. Even though he had already spoken with Joseph, Jacob gave his disharmonious sons the gift of certainty about his wishes. That way, when the time came, Joseph could direct that Jacob’s body be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion for transport to Canaan. He and his brothers traveled together to the Cave of Machpelah without unnecessary arguments – they all knew exactly what their father had wanted.

Later Joseph followed his father’s example, gathering his family and blessing them with a reminder of the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then made his own request: “Bring my bones up from this place.”  He prophesied that someday they would leave Egypt, and in fact, Moses remembered:

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones from here with you.” – Exodus 13:19

In our own days of advanced medical technology, there are many more things about which we should be specific with family. It is important to have the proper documents prepared: advanced health care directives, valid wills, and instructions for executors. However, those documents are limited unless we also take the time to talk about these matters with our loved ones in such a way as to minimize conflict and confusion at a difficult time.

Our ancestors Jacob and Joseph teach us the value of these conversations, a value that has only grown over time. If you have not had such conversations, if you have so far not created those documents, do not delay!

Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

Recently I attended the Christian funeral of a man who had been an employee and friend of my congregation for many years. He was a good man and dearly loved, and I would make a rough guess that there were as many Jews in attendance at his funeral as Christians.

We were all there to remember and say goodbye to a good man, a man without whom the world is a poorer place. Two communities with very different beliefs joined together in grief and love to remember Jim. At the same time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many differences between Protestant and Jewish funerals.

The differences boiled down to two things: the handling of the body, and the beliefs about afterlife.

• THE BODY – At this Protestant Christian funeral, the body of the deceased was dressed in his best suit and embalmed for display at the service. This was a bit of a shock to Jews in attendance who are not accustomed to it. The Jewish thinking is that it is disrespectful to look at the dead, and disrespectful to disturb the body other than washing and dressing it. The Christian thinking, if I understand it correctly, is to honor the dead by making the body look as good as possible before laying it in the earth, to provide mourners with a last memory.

• BELIEF – At a Christian funeral, there is a firm belief that this person has gone on to another life with God in heaven. The service made reference to this again and again, and the minister admonished the congregation to get into a right relationship with God, so that when their time came, they too would go to heaven. At a Jewish funeral, on the other hand, there is little if any talk about afterlife. Jews have a variety of thoughts about what happens after death, but our focus is on this life. At a Jewish funeral there is more of a focus on grief and on the importance of memory.

What was the same was the human need to stop and pay respect to a loved one who had gone from this life. We may believe different things about the mysteries of life and death, but Christian and Jew, we were awed to stand on the brink of eternity to say our farewells.

 

“Baruch Dayan Emet” – Why Do We Bless God When Someone Dies?

Angel of Grief - Hill Family
Angel of Grief (Photo credit: Mike Schaffner)

The traditional Jewish response to news of a death, any death, is “Baruch Dayan emet,” “Blessed is the true Judge.”

Here are some reasons for this ritual:

1. If there is a ritual formula to say when I get shocking news, I am less likely to say something inappropriate.  Death is solemn, and even when it is expected, it can be a shock. People say stupid things when they are shocked. Having a script for the first few moments can be very helpful.

2. The statement acknowledges that I do not know the sum of that person’s life. I am not qualified to stand in judgment upon them. By saying that only God is so qualified, I either affirm faith that God is the only true judge, or (if I am not a believer in a personal God) I acknowledge that only God, if there were such a person, can sit in judgment.

3. Making a statement of humility (“I cannot judge”) reminds me not to say something stupid with my next words.

4. If the death is tragic or inexplicable, it is a way of saying, “I do not understand how this could have happened” without starting a conversation about the possibilities. It keeps us away from platitudes that might get in the way of healthy grief, or other statements that might be unhelpful to the mourners.

5. The longer form of the blessing appears first in the Mishnah Berachot 9:2 (“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, ruler of the Universe, who is the True Judge.” We are told in that Mishnah that this is a blessing to say at the reception of any bad news. Rabbi Louis Rieser teaches that this is a way of acknowledging the Presence of God at a moment of high emotion, when we are most overwhelmed by loss.

6. The moment of death is a time when no words suffice, but we human beings are relentless with our words. By providing a simple ritual of humility with many possible interpretations, Jewish tradition gives us a container for our words at a time when they can do terrible harm. There is no need to say anything more, after “Baruch Dayan emet” – ultimately it says, I have no words for this. We stand with the mourner or stand as a mourner in the presence of the greatest mystery of life, and with these words clear the way for the long process of grief.

Jewish Funeral Etiquette: 10 Tips

This is an update of a post from a while back. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living. 

The sages tell us that there is no greater mitzvah than to help bury someone, because it is a favor that cannot be returned. They don’t mention (but I am sure they knew) that it is also a difficult mitzvah: death is scary, graves are scary, and loss is painful.  Jewish funeral etiquette is slightly different from many American customs. Here are my beginners’ tips for attending Jewish funerals:

1. DON’T STAY AWAY. It may be tempting to “have a prior commitment” when there is a death on the outskirts of our circle of friends, but it is a good thing to go to funerals even when you knew the person but “not very well.”  The person who died won’t know you are there, but to the mourners it is a comfort to be surrounded by their community, especially by their friends.

2. YOUR PRESENCE IS IMPORTANT. You do not need to say much to mourners; in fact, the less said, the better. Nothing you say is going to fix it. What will help most is your presence at the funeral or at shiva (more about that in a minute.) Take their hand. Say “I am so sorry” if you must, but in Jewish tradition, there is no need to say anything at all unless the mourner starts the conversation. Mostly what will help is for you to let them know that they have friends who will not disappear.

3. WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES. Dress nicely, but wear sensible shoes if you are going to the graveside. Cemetery grounds are often extremely plushy grass. If it would be difficult to walk in sand in the those shoes, they will be miserable in a cemetery. All of this goes triple if it has been raining. You do not want to be the woman I once saw trapped in the mud by her very expensive (and ruined) stiletto heels.

4. LOW KEY IS THE KEY. If you find friends there, just remember that this IS a funeral: talk quietly. Once the service begins, be quiet. Turn OFF the cell phone for the service, and do not fiddle with it.

5. MOSTLY, JUST LISTEN. There is very little required of the congregation at a funeral. Your job is to be there. There will be a few prayers, perhaps a song, a hesped (eulogy), and the traditional prayers  El Maleh Rachamim [God Full of Mercy] and the Mourner’s Kaddish. Say “Amen” [Ah-MAYN] when the congregation says it, if you wish. The payoff for listening is that you will learn things about this person that you did not know. You may hear some wonderful stories.

6. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. The funeral director will give directions before and after the service. Please do whatever he or she tells you to do: park here, sit there, stand, don’t walk there.  Complying with directions is one way to support the mourners and give respect to the dead.

7. AT GRAVESIDE. Some funerals move from a chapel to graveside, some are held at graveside. If you do not know the family well, it is OK to attend the chapel service and then skip the graveside service – it’s assumed to be more private. There will likely be chairs under an awning facing the open grave. Those chairs are for mourners; you do not want to sit in them unless you are a member of the family or disabled. There will be a few prayers, the casket will be lowered, and the officiant may assist the family in the ancient custom of shoveling earth into the grave. One or three shovelfuls is typical, and after the family, other attendees may assist. It is a symbolic way of participating in caring for the body by putting it safely in the earth. Again, follow directions; this is an extremely sensitive time for the family and you don’t want to cause a problem.

8. SHIVA. There may be an announcement about shiva, the gathering at the home for (traditionally) seven days after the burial. Go at the times announced. At the shiva house, remember that your presence is what matters; you cannot make their pain go away with words. Mourners need time and space to mourn, and it is an act of kindness to give them the opportunity to do so. Usually there is a short service at the shiva house in the morning and evening. You can linger, but do not overstay: when people start leaving, go. Keep in mind that this is not a party, the mourners are not “entertaining.” Sending or bringing prepared food is a very nice thing to do; when in doubt, send kosher food.

9. DONATIONS.  Most families will designate a charity to which donations (tzedakah) may be made in memory of the dead, and most non-profits are happy to send a card to the mourners telling them about your gift. This is not required, but it is a very nice thing to do. Which brings us to:

10. THINGS YOU WILL NOT SEE OR HEAR AT A TRADITIONAL JEWISH FUNERAL: 

  • Flowers – instead, Jews give donations to a memorial fund. (See #9 above)
  • An open casket – We don’t look at a dead person unnecessarily, since they cannot look back at us.
  • A fancy casket – Traditionally, Jewish caskets are plain, unfinished wood.
  • Talk about the afterlife – Most Jews focus on doing good in this life. We don’t know for sure what happens after death, and we tend not to worry about it much. Some think there is an afterlife, some don’t.
At a somewhat less traditional Jewish funeral, there may be a fancy casket, or there may have been a cremation. Do not comment about anything that seems unusual. The mourners may be honoring a request of the deceased, or something may have been the topic of a disagreement in the family.  These people are already in pain: this is not the time to appoint yourself the Jewish Tradition Cop! If you have questions, call or email a rabbi later (or leave a question in the comments here!)
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In my work as a rabbi, I find few things more spiritually enriching than a funeral. It is a sobering thing to stand by an open grave. Many silly things that seemed terribly important shrink to an appropriate size in the face of death. Being with a family and friendship circle as they comfort each other is a reminder that love is indeed “stronger than death.” (Song of Songs 8:6) The whole experience puts me back in touch with the beauty of life.
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Of course, there is much more to learn about Jewish funerals and mourning practice, but this is intended to be a guide for those who are about to attend a Jewish funeral for the first time. I hope that it is helpful as you perform this mitzvah.
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First Funeral

opengrave

The first funeral at which I officiated by myself took place at graveside on the afternoon before Kol Nidre.

I remember it vividly.  My feet were planted uneasily on the distinctive grass typical of cemeteries, a thick spongy carpet of thatch. Before me was a plain wooden casket suspended over a hole in the ground. The raw earth looked like a wound; it disappeared into darkness below. The desert sun above beat down on our heads and a hot wind ruffled the pages of my rabbi’s manual.

The dead woman’s name was Ruth. The eerie quality to saying my own name at graveside was magnified by the fact that I did not know this Ruth at all, nor did I know her family. I was simply performing a mitzvah, called to it by the fact that I was the newest rabbi in town, and it was my turn in the rotation for unaffiliated Jews. I had assembled a hesped [eulogy] from the recollections of her relatives, but they were taciturn people and I had not yet developed much skill at drawing stories out of strangers. Skills or no, the hesped had the proper effect: the meyt [dead person) was remembered with dignity and the mourners began their process of grieving with tears.

Fortunately they did not know that the rabbi was well and properly freaked out.

I hardly remember the Kol Nidre service that night. My place in it as the new part-time assistant was small, and I was free to pray as long as I remembered to sit like a lady and keep a calm face on the bimah. I was busy, though, busy processing the afternoon’s revelation, that someday some other rabbi would stand by a hole in the ground and say those words before they lowered my body into it. Someday I would die and they would bury me. It was unpleasant, but as I worked through it, I realized it was a gift. That visceral knowledge of my own mortality taught me that I have no time to waste on this earth.

The Psalmist wrote that our “days are like grass.”  Most of the time we are able to avoid that knowledge. Thinking about it too much isn’t healthy. Thinking about it too little is just as bad.

Someday I will die. What must I get done before that day comes?