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.

 


What is Yizkor?

April 19, 2014

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If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

Image by Bill Barber, some rights reserved.

 


A Lesson on Comfort (Parashat Shimini)

March 17, 2014
Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire (Matthäus Merian the Elder)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:

    Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
    And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3

Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.

There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.

It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.

On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!”  Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense.  Aaron is silent.

There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:

  • “This is God’s plan!”
  • “He’s in a better place!”
  • “At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.

Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.

Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain


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.


Nine Eleven Again

September 11, 2013

English: A lit Yahrtzeit candle, a candle that...

What is there left to say about the events of 9/11/2001?

If you knew someone, remember them.

If any of my readers would like to post memories of people who died that day or in the events that have followed since, I invite you to do so in the comments.

Please do not use this space for political statements. I will delete them.

God, full of mercy, who dwells in the high places, provide a secure rest upon the wings of the Divine Presence… to the souls of all those who died that day and as a consequence to that day…  Amen.


What is Tisha B’Av?

July 12, 2013
English: Excavated stones from the Western Wal...

English: Excavated stones from the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (Jerusalem), knocked onto the street below by Roman battering rams in 70 C.E. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Tisha B’Av is a Jewish fast day.
  • Tisha B’Av means “Ninth of Av.”
  • In 2013, Tisha B’Av will begin on July 15 at sundown and continue until sundown on July 16.
  • On Tisha B’Av, observant Jews fast and read the Book of Lamentations.
  • On Tisha B’Av we remember disasters that have befallen the Jewish People, especially the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 of the Common Era.
  • The Temple was destroyed by the armies of Rome, but Jewish tradition says that the Temple was destroyed on account of “baseless hatred” among Jews against one another.

For more about Tisha B’Av, check out these articles in MyJewishLearning.com and The Virtual Jewish Library.


Prayer of the Broken Heart

June 23, 2013

English: Women with Broken Heart

How is one to pray with a broken heart?

Many of the best known Jewish prayers are prayers of praise. Sometimes the words of these prayers are hard to say when we are hurting, or when there is something we desperately  need. Blessing God – the simplest form of Jewish prayer – is counter-intuitive when we are in pain.

There is a kind of prayer that is not so well known, but it can be helpful when we are in the depths.  That sort of prayer is lamentation. When we make a lament, we list our pains and our disappointments. We own those parts of our unhappy state that are our own fault, but we also list those things that are simply lousy luck or the malice of people over whom we have no control. We make a list, and we hold it up before God. We say, “See? I hurt!”

A prayer of lament is not magic. It will not bring back the dead or mend what is broken, any more than the lament of the speaker in the Book of Lamentations brought back the dead or freed the slaves of Jerusalem after its destruction. So one might ask, what’s the point?

The point of such prayer is not that it is guaranteed to change the situation – many things cannot be changed. However, the prayer can change us.

In making the whole, long, miserable list, we are going to notice things we did not notice before, because we were so lost in pain:

  • Since we are not making this list for anyone but ourselves and God, there is no need to minimize or exaggerate our troubles. We can simply state them as facts, and move towards accepting them as facts.
  • We may notice that some things really were beyond our control: the recession, the fire, the illness. We can say, as Job did to his comforters, “I did not choose this. It is not my fault.” We can reject foolish theories about “attracting” misfortune or illness.
  • We may notice that some things were indeed our own doing. That is not a pleasant discovery, but at this point, it is simply another fact. Perhaps we need to work on teshuvah [repentance] or work on forgiving ourselves. By making teshuvah properly and forgiving ourselves we will be able to move on.
  • We can participate in the Jewish tradition of holding God responsible for those things that were not human actions. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it says that the ancient Hebrews cried out to God, who listened to their cries. In the wilderness, they complained (a lot!) David complained in several of the Psalms. And in modern times, prisoners in Auschwitz actually put God on trial for failing to keep the Covenant.
  • Sometimes making this list will allow us to let go and cry. Sometimes there really is such a thing as “a good cry.”
  • With the calm that comes from really accepting that things are “that bad” new possibilities may emerge. Perhaps pride or shame was getting in the way of accepting help.
  • Telling the truth about our lives is an act of intimacy and dignity. Whatever your understanding of God – whether you address God very traditionally as Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World] or you address the “still small voice” within your own heart, it is movement towards something new.

Have you ever made a prayer of lament? What was your experience with it?


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.


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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