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.

 

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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.