Speaking of the Dead

Image: A single narcissus blossom (Fauren/Shutterstock)

Columnist Frank Bruni wrote a great opinion piece for the New York Times, “Death in the Age of Narcissism.” He makes the point that Americans have developed the habit of making the death of public figures an opportunity to talk about themselves. The President does it, other public figures do it, and reporters do it, and it’s a bad habit all around. I recommend you click on the link and read the piece; it’s good.

Many of us don’t fully appreciate what we’re doing, and that’s a damned good reason, among plenty of others, to pay closer attention to it. It undermines what should be our goal, which is to put someone else in the spotlight. We can’t do that if we’re crowding the stage. – Frank Bruni, “Death in the Age of Narcissism.”

Agreed, but I have a minor disagreement with his thinking. Obituaries and eulogies are not for the dead; the dead cannot hear them. Public speech after a death speaks to the public, and to the mourners.

This is one reason that speaking of the dead immediately after death, the rule “if you can’t say something good, say as little as possible” applies. The dead leave behind living people who are in pain. Jewish tradition is so firm on this subject that we are taught to say, “Blessed is the true Judge” when we first hear of a death, any death.  That provides a moment to restrain any wild impulse to say something cruel or ignorant. In a Jewish eulogy, the hesped, rabbis are taught to tell the truth but to put it gently.

“But what if it is true?” I hear someone asking. “What if Dead Person was a terrible person and there are victims?” That’s another topic – one I would like to address separately soon. At this point, I will still say that it is very thin ice and I still believe the less said in public about the flaws of the dead while the grave is fresh, the better. Immediately after a death, there are mourners, and they must be treated with kindness.

Mourning is a time of terrible vulnerability. The spirit reels with loss; it is in no position to process unkindness, however truthful. Just as we know we will all die someday, it is also true that at some time in our lives, we will be mourners. Hillel’s dictum, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person” suggests that we should extend to mourners the kindness we ourselves want at such a time.

Mr Bruni is correct, up to a point. The goal of speech about the recently dead is to shed light upon their lives, but one may never forget that just outside that spotlight stands the widow and the orphan. Whatever the dead did will remain for discussion at another time; funerals are for the mourners.

Economic Justice & Jewish Funerals

Image: A plain pine casket. Photo: Northwoods Casket Company.

Likewise, at first taking the dead out for burial was more difficult for the relatives than the actual death, because it was customary to bury the dead in expensive shrouds, which the poor could not afford. The problem grew to the point that relatives would sometimes abandon the corpse and run away. This lasted until Rabban Gamliel came and acted with frivolity, meaning that he waived his dignity, by leaving instructions that he be taken out for burial in linen garments. And the people adopted this practice after him and had themselves taken out for burial in linen garments. Rav Pappa said: And nowadays, everyone follows the practice of taking out the dead for burial even in plain hemp garments that cost only a dinar. – Moed Katan 27b

Sometimes people are surprised at the plainness of Jewish funerals. The coffin is usually plain wood and there are no flowers. The funeral itself is simple: a few psalms, a few words about the deceased, more psalms, and then the special prayers for the dead: El Male Rachamim and the Mourner’s Kaddish.  We put the plain box gently in the ground, and all participate in filling the grave.

That’s all there is to the funeral. Afterwards our focus is on the mourners, making sure that they are able to do the work of grief with the community’s support. If you want to know more about that, I have written A Quick Primer on Jewish Mourning.

The story above is the origin of all this simplicity. The ancient Jewish community was divided by the fact that some were wealthier than others. Income inequality was so wide that some families felt ashamed to bury their dead, because they felt they could not do so adequately without spending money they did not have.

It took the leadership of Rabban Gamliel to change things. He made arrangements that his own funeral would be utterly simple: a simple shroud that anyone could afford, or that a donor might buy for a destitute person. In that way, he equalized all Jewish funerals: he set the example that even a great sage from a prosperous family should have such a simple funeral. Therefore everyone had to follow suit.

Sometimes when we talk about economic justice, we spend a lot of time reassuring people with resources that they will not lose anything by making justice. It’s up to those individuals, sometimes, to lead the way, and perhaps to quietly shame those who don’t want to give up their own splendid shroud. Face it: who needs a high fashion shroud?

Jewish tradition teaches us that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things in this world. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about money. However, it is wrong to leave others hungry or homeless. It is wrong to do things in such a way that others will feel ashamed.

 

Jewish Funeral: Why not send flowers?

Image: A Jewish cemetery. Note the pebbles left on monuments. Photo by Darelle, via pixabay.com.

“Should I send flowers to a Jewish funeral?”

Many readers search that question, or something like it. The simple answer is: NO. Flowers are not part of Jewish funeral traditions.

Instead of flowers, Jews appreciate a memorial donation to a charity or social justice organization. Often the family will name a particular fund or charity for memorial donations. If there is no charity named, then donate to the organization of your choice. The amount of the donation is unimportant; give according to your means.

Most organizations will mail a card to the family letting them know of the memorial gift. Give them a name and address in addition to the name of the deceased.

Why no flowers? 

  • First, it is Jewish tradition, going back millennia.
  • Second, there is a strong feeling in our tradition that in death people should all be treated equally. Having flowers at the funeral or on the grave would mean that wealthier folk would have a bigger “show” and poorer people would be shamed.
  • Third, a donation to a fund that will relieve suffering or make the world better is a more lasting memorial than flowers.

What else can one do to honor the dead?

  • Attend the funeral.
  • Visit the family at shiva. (See 5 Tips for Shiva Visits)
  • Visit the grave and leave a pebble on it as a mark that a visitor was there.
  • Attend any events in honor of the dead.
  • Call or visit the mourners periodically during the first year of mourning.

For more about Jewish funerals, see Jewish Funeral Etiquette: 10 Tips.

For more about supporting mourners, see Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

 

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.

Can I Go to Shiva Instead?

From the searches that brought people to this blog: “Can I go to shiva, instead of to the funeral?”

If you were to stop me on the street and ask me this question, I’d say, “Tell me more.” I am very curious about what’s behind the question. I’d buy you a cup of coffee and we’d chat.

However, I can imagine two possibilities:

(1) “I really cannot get off work but I want to comfort the mourners.” Sometimes we just can’t do everything we want to do. I’m so glad you want to comfort the mourners! It’s an important mitzvah, and you will certainly be performing that mitzvah if you attend shiva at the house. Don’t forget to give them a call a few weeks later, just to say hello and check in.

(2) “The funeral is at the cemetery and I hate cemeteries.” Well, let’s talk about this a bit. Are you so freaked out by cemeteries that you literally cannot enter one? Because if that is the case, perhaps I should offer you a referral to a good therapist. But if it’s dislike, let’s dig at that a bit: why do you dislike cemeteries? Cemeteries are uncomfortable for many of us because they remind us of our own mortality. It’s hard to avoid the thought that I am going to die someday, when I am standing by the grave of a friend. Jewish tradition tells us that our discomfort at that thought is a good thing: it can motivate us to live better lives, because we remember that our days are limited. If that’s the issue, and it isn’t at the level of a phobia, I’d be inclined to encourage you to grit your teeth and give it a try. Also, what if everyone gave in to discomfort and no one showed up? How would the family feel?

The funeral and shiva are not an either/or choice. They are actually two separate mitzvot. The funeral is levayat ha mayt [accompanying the dead] and it is the last good deed we can do for a friend. Attending shiva is nichum ahvaylim [comforting mourners] and while it also happens at the funeral, it really gets down to business at the shiva.

Mortality is a bummer. We are naturally inclined to think that we will live forever. However, that simply isn’t the case, and our tradition is clear that it isn’t good for us to entertain the fantasy of living forever. Getting in touch with our mortality, once in a while, is one way to truly appreciate the present.

How would you answer this person’s question? Have you ever been to a funeral that was very sparsely attended? Any other thoughts to share on this topic?

The Jewish Path of Grief

Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief
Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.

Personally, in the initial stages of grief, I can’t sleep at all, I can’t eat, and I go back and forth between exhaustion and a wild desire to “get things done.” It’s awful. My web of relationships is torn, and I flail about, trying to get my bearings. Left to my own devices, I eventually go numb, a state that is interrupted for months by flashes of anger. Grief takes different forms in people, but at the bottom it’s all the same: we lose someone close to us, and we’re a mess.

Grief will not be denied. Fail to attend to it, and it will come get us later, at an even less convenient time.

This is why Jewish tradition gives us the practice of shiva. Shiva involves sitting down for a week to let the work of grief take place. It involves a certain lack of privacy, a lack that no one likes but that will ultimately speed along the work of grief. It involves letting people into my house to help, and allowing my Jewish community to organize on my behalf. It requires that I turn off my usual distractors (work, radio, TV) and feel the unbearable things I am feeling. If no feelings come, then I must sit with that absence of feeling: it’s all grief.

Shiva is something we do for one another. I take food to the home of a grieving person, knowing that she or someone like her will bring food to my home when the inevitable day comes that I must sit shiva. When I visit a shiva house, and see the mourner rushing around, trying to entertain, I say gently, “Let me take care of that” and begin greeting people at the door. A mourner is not a host, no matter how badly he wants to be anything but a mourner.

When I visit a shiva house, I arrive quietly, stay a while, speak gently to the mourner, perhaps leave some food, then move along quietly. It is not a party. I may check to see if there’s anything they need (groceries? errands? care for a pet?) but mostly I let them know that they are not abandoned by the rest of us and then I let them grieve. It is hard to let people grieve; we can’t fix it, and we mustn’t try.

Later they will need invitations to lunch, to Shabbat dinner, or to a movie. They will need distraction, after the first work of grief is done.

Eventually, we all take turns at all the roles: today’s mourner is tomorrow’s gentle helper. The person who brings food to this shiva house will be fed at some point in the future.

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.

Mensch Lessons

Image: People walking in a cemetery. Photo by Tony Alter.

A while back I attended a funeral for a wonderful woman. It was sad, as all funerals are sad, but it was also a celebration, because Henrietta Garfinkle, or “Hank,” as her friends knew her, had been waiting for this day. She buried her great love, Vic, 18 months ago, and while she was not a person to grieve herself to death, she looked forward to spending eternity with him.

A lot of people avoid funerals. It’s too bad, because at the funeral of a mensch – a deeply good person – you can learn a lot about how to become a mensch yourself. We heard stories from Hank’s children, and her children’s spouses, about how she had been with them. We heard from her rabbi. And as is the case with Jewish funerals, they told the truth about her. That is actually a rule about a Jewish hesped, or eulogy: it has to be true, even when the truth is difficult.

I can’t remember everything that was said. What I know is that I left that funeral with a clearer idea of exactly the sort of mensch that Henrietta was, and that as a result, I know some new things about how to be a good Jew and a good person. I learn not only how the person was good, but I get a sense of what their challenges were in being a good person. This happens every time I attend a funeral.

So the next time you hear of a funeral in your congregation, consider attending. It is a mitzvah to attend a funeral, even if you didn’t know the person well. If they were part of your community, it is a mitzvah to go, period. If they were especially beloved in your community, be SURE to go, because it’s a great opportunity: you’re going to learn from the best.

The Shovel and the Earth

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Five Tips for Shivah Visits

Image: Couple receiving visitors bringing food. (Iakov Filimonov /Shutterstock)

Shivah (shee-VAH or SHIV-uh) is the Jewish period of deep mourning after the death of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child. It begins immediately after the burial and continues for no more than seven days. It may pause for Shabbat (we do not officially mourn on Shabbat) or for certain holidays. When a person is “sitting shivah,” it is Jewish custom to visit them at the designated home as a way of providing comfort and support.

It is a mitzvah (sacred duty) to visit a person during shivah. However, it is not like a regular social visit. The rules of shivah are set to provide the best support for the bereaved, and to help us in what is for some a challenging mitzvah.

1. Visit only at times when you are welcome. If the bereaved is part of your synagogue community, hours of shivah may be available from the temple office. Alternatively they may be put on a sign on the door of the house. They will certainly be announced at the end of the funeral.

2. Be helpful.  Bring prepared food to the shivah house, if you are able, but do not bring dishes that will have to be returned to you. If you visit the shivah house and see something that needs to be done (welcoming guests, simple cleaning, work in the kitchen) it is very helpful to do so. A mourner is not a host, and should not be expected to entertain in any way.

3. Comfort with your presence. The general rule in speaking to mourners is: don’t speak unless they indicate a desire that you talk with them. It is perfectly fine to sit next to a mourner and say nothing at all.

4. Listen. If the mourner wants to talk, listen. Let them talk, acknowledge what you hear from them. Let them express whatever emotion they are feeling: do not try to make them feel “better” or judge what they say. Do not, DO NOT tell them how they “should” feel.

5. Don’t overstay your welcome. Unless you are extremely close to the family, make it a short visit. Do not use the shivah gathering as a social event to visit with others. The mourners are likely exhausted.

WAYS TO HELP THE BEREAVED

During Shivah:

  • Be there. Listen.
  • Offer to run errands, cook, deal with practical matters.
  • Give tzedakah in honor of the dead, arrange for a card to be sent to the mourner.

After Shivah:

  • Make sure the bereaved are included in social invitations.
  • Make sure that a mourner does not sit alone at services. Invite them to join you.
  • Call just to say “Hello.”
  • Drop a note to say hello, or to share a memory of the deceased.
  • Listen to their memories.

Too often, because we don’t know what to do, we withdraw from mourners, leaving them to grieve alone. This is an act of cruelty, even if it is done out of confusion. Do not abandon a mourner.