The Shovel and the Earth

September 23, 2013
Jewish Cemetery

Jewish Cemetery (Photo credit: elPadawan)

Today I officiated at a funeral. It is a mitzvah that I am both sad and honored to do, to help a family through a difficult transition.

Jewish funerals are simple, powerful rituals. We read a few psalms and passages from the Bible, we memorialize the person with a hesped [eulogy], we chant El Male Rachamim [God, Full of Mercy] and Kaddish.  We place the body of the person gently in the ground, usually in a plain wooden box, and we cover it up with earth.

The sound of the clods of earth falling on a casket are distinct and unforgettable. Even when the person in the grave is a relative stranger it is a sobering sound. It says, “This is final.”

Each mourner ladles three shovels full of earth into the grave.  They put the shovel back into the pile of fresh earth, and do not hand it to the next person. There are superstitions about this that mostly have to do with containing the “contagion” of death. Nowadays few people believe in a literal Angel of Death or that death is contagious, but they still avoid handing the shovel to another person, and in the shiva house, they cover the mirrors.

Sometimes people are shocked, when they hear that thus-and-so is “to keep the Angel of Death away.” But really, all these traditions are for making ritual so that people who feel lost will know what to do. Otherwise, how can anyone know what to do at such a time, except collapse and cry?

We tell stories about these things. It is always important to see the faces, to touch the hands, to be with people. The stories are just stories.

 


Interfaith / End of Life

April 29, 2013

English: A combination of four religious symbo...

 

Funerals can be complex and challenging for interfaith families.  Here are some things to consider, if you are in a family with both Jews and Gentiles:

 

PLAN AHEAD. This applies to ALL families, of whatever religious persuasion.  Ask yourself these questions (the exact terminology and documents will depend on your state or country of residence.)

 

  • Do I have a current will or revocable trust? Is it up to date?
  • Have I designated (and documented!) the person who will make medical decisions for me if I cannot?
  • Have I communicated with that person about my wishes? Have we talked enough about it that they know what I really want? Are the legal papers for that in order?
  • Have I made my wishes clear – in writing! – about organ donation? Does my family know about my decisions?
  • If I have particular wishes about my funeral, have I communicated those to family in writing?

 

Making decisions and communicating them to family is an act of love and care, even if they don’t want to hear about it. There are few things more terrible than standing by the hospital bed of someone you love and not knowing their wishes about end-of-life care. Spare the ones you love the agony of guessing and guilt.

 

For interfaith families, you can save the ones you love a lot of grief if you specify your wishes about funerals:

 

WHAT KIND OF FUNERAL? If you are Jewish and most of your family is not, do you want a Jewish funeral? Do you have  a rabbi or other Jewish professional you would like them to call for guidance at that time?  If you are not Jewish, does your family know what you want, and whom to call for direction?

 

REGULAR JEWISH FUNERALS generally are led by a rabbi or cantor, although ordination is not necessary for someone who knows the ritual. The body is not embalmed, and the plain wooden casket is closed. Burial takes place as soon as reasonably possible after death, not on Shabbat (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) , allowing time for family to gather. Bodies are not put on view. Funerals are simple and fairly short (20-30 minutes at graveside is not unusual – a chapel service followed by graveside will run a bit longer.)

 

BURIAL OR…?  Normally Jews are buried in the ground with their bodies as undisturbed as possible. Cremation is practiced by some liberal and secular Jews.  Remains are usually buried in a cemetery (or columbarium, in the case of ashes) where there can later be a marker (matsevah, in Hebrew.) Scattering ashes is not a normative Jewish practice, nor is it usual to keep ashes in the home.

 

These customs go back centuries, but at this point in history, the main things to know are that we have a tradition of visiting graves, and if there is no grave to visit, that’s hard to do. Secondly, after the Holocaust, cremation and scattering ashes have a very painful connection for many Jews.

 

In a city with a sizeable Jewish population, there is likely a Jewish funeral home, or a secular funeral home that many Jews use.  They can help you with these arrangements. If there is financial hardship, tell them. Burial of the dead is a mitzvah (sacred duty) and there may be programs to assist with the expense of a Jewish funeral. In a small town, Jewish resources may be more limited, but talk with the funeral home.

 

Since this is a Jewish website and I am a rabbi, I’m not going to presume to teach about Christian or Islamic funeral practice.

 

JEWISH CEMETERIES will have specific rules about who may be buried in them, what ceremonies can take place, and what sorts of markers can be put up. These will differ from place to place and may differ among zones in a cemetery.   If the family wishes to bury both Jews and Gentiles in a family plot, it is critical that you communicate that before you buy the plot.  For some families, a secular cemetery may be an easier choice.  The best way to determine what will work for your family is to talk with funeral professionals and clergy about your family’s needs.

 

COMFORTING THE MOURNERS. At a Jewish funeral there are two tasks: levayat hamet, burying the dead, and nichum avelim, comforting the mourners. Every mourner has a right to be comforted in a way that is meaningful to them. Exactly how that works will differ from family to family and from mourner to mourner. In a family with several Jews, shiva may be appropriate. (For more info about Jewish mourning customs, click this link.)

 

WORKING WITH CLERGY. Never assume that clergy will be comfortable co-officiating at an interfaith service unless you have a rabbi, priest, imam or minister who have worked together with your family in the recent past. Better to choose one clergy person to officiate and then talk with him or her about inviting participation by other clergy or planning additional services. There may be individual clergy who are comfortable with co-officiation, but it is never safe to assume about their boundaries.

 

All families are different. Any single statement above may or may not be useful in your situation. My best advice to you, if you are a Jew with mostly Gentile relatives, is that you should have a chat sometime with your rabbi about caring for your body and your family when you die.  If you are a Gentile with mostly Jewish relatives, let them know what you want, and if it’s going to require help outside the Jewish sphere, make those contacts for them: give them the name of sympathetic clergy you trust.

 

If you are a member of one of those fortunate families who are comfortable in one house of worship and who have clergy who know you, then disregard all the above: call your rabbi, priest, imam, or minister and put your family  in their hands.

 

For anyone reading this who has recently suffered a loss, I wish you comfort in the arms of loving family and friends, and I pray that you are able to find the professionals you need at this time.

 

 

 

 

 


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