Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

May 12, 2014

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.

 


Questions, not Answers

December 16, 2013

WRNLogowide2

I am one of a group of rabbis who post on Kol Isha (Voice of the Woman), the blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Today was my day to post, and so I’m going to direct you over there for today’s thoughts on Questions, not Answers.

Honestly, after writing that one, I’m all out of words.


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

December 7, 2013
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

September 30, 2013

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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#BlogElul – Know What’s Ahead

August 10, 2013

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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.

It’s Elul, time to think about it again.

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

This post is part of #BlogElul 5773 / 2013, a month-long themed blogburst orchestrated by imabima. I can’t promise that I’ll post every day, but I hope to share at least a few posts on these themes over the month to come. For other people’s posts on these themes, search using the #BlogElul hashtag.


Why Go to Funerals?

May 20, 2013
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, wordpress.com, 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.


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