Jewish Mourning in the Time of Pandemic

Image: Jewish cemetery/ (Michał Buksa /Pixabay)

I just taught a class on mourning in Judaism, and it was a sharp reminder of how strange times are right now. Funerals are strange right now: we cannot gather in a chapel, we cannot crowd together for comfort at graveside. Some of my colleagues have officiated at funerals with only themselves and cemetery staff present, using a smartphone camera to allow the mourners to see. Shiva tends to be virtual these days, too, and I weep for the mourners who have to sit at home, alone.

So how can we help, those of us who want to observe the mitzvot of comforting mourners?

First, we can check with our rabbis about how they are handling funerals right now. They will have directions about what is helpful and what is not. Please don’t argue with the rabbi, or tell them that you have a great idea for a better option. I promise you, they have agonized over every bit of the arrangements already.

We can help by letting others know about the shiva, or about the death itself, without adding gossipy bits.

We can help by not criticizing the family about arrangements that are not ideal. They are already aware that things aren’t normal, and they should not be bothered with things that are out of their control.

We can help by attending the virtual funeral, if that is the arrangement. If it is not set up as a virtual event, we can help by not causing a fuss if we are not one of the very few who are invited to attend in person.

We can attend virtual shivas, even if we’ve already spent six hours on Zoom that day. Mourners need to see that they are not abandoned at such a time. They need us to be present, even if the only possible presence is virtual.

We can help by checking in with mourners by phone, or by text message, or by email.

We can help by not complaining if they take a while to answer.

We can help by sending notes of condolence – you know the old fashioned kind, on paper?

We can help by sending mourners our good memories of the person who died.

We can help by sharing photos, if we have some.

We can help by offering to bring food by, to drop off no-contact style, by the door.

We can help by sending food via a local restaurant or deli.

We can help by continuing to keep contact, even after the first week or month.

We can listen, and keep listening. Sometimes mourners need to tell stories again and again. One of the kindest things we can do is to say, “It’s OK, don’t worry about it” when they worry that they are talking too much about their loved one.

We can help by notifying clergy, if we get the sense that the mourner is getting depressed or otherwise suffering. Rabbis and cantors want to know when a member of the congregation is suffering, but they can’t know if no one tells them.

The day will eventually come when we can have proper funerals and shiva again. But until then, our mourners need us, the people they may only barely know in their Jewish community, to be there for them.

“Baruch Dayan HaEmet” – Why Do Jews Say this Blessing When Someone Dies?

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 HaEmet,” “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 or, God forbid, cruel.  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 HaEmet” – 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.

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.

 

Tip the Rabbi?

English: A basic, Sharp-brand solar calculator.

I love perusing the Google searches that bring people to my blog, because it tells me what people want to know. Today someone typed, “How much to tip the rabbi.” I’m going to expand that a bit, to include the various ways rabbis are paid for their work.

– If you are a member of a congregation with a full time rabbi, the rabbi’s salary is part of the congregational budget.

– If you are using the services of a rabbi who is employed by a congregation and you are not a member, you may be asked to pay the synagogue  for his or her time. That “honorarium” or fee will be mentioned when you set up the service (say, a funeral.)

– If you wish to express your thanks, you can always contribute to the rabbi’s discretionary fund. That money is set aside for charitable purposes (not the rabbi’s car payment). Your rabbi will use it to relieve immediate suffering (for instance, by purchasing “gift cards” to a grocery store for a hungry person) or to support the work of a nonprofit organization.

– Freelance or community rabbis (those not employed by congregations) may or may not perform weddings, baby namings, etc. The way to find out is to ask. Generally they have a set fee for these things, but the exact rate will depend on local custom.

– It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah [a charitable contribution] to celebrate happy occasions, to memorialize the dead, and at holidays. That money might go to a rabbi’s discretionary fund, or to a synagogue fund, or to a nonprofit that serves the needy.

– No respectable rabbi charges for conversion to Judaism. There may be a charge to take an “Intro” class, or to use the community mikveh, but conversion itself is not for sale. If someone quotes you a fee “for conversion” it’s time to look for a different rabbi.

– It is not rude or crass to ask up front about fees. If you cannot afford the fee as quoted, say so. The rabbi may be able to help you access assistance for  low-income individuals, especially for a funeral.

This information is geared for the United States. However, the last point holds true everywhere: as Hillel said, the shy will not learn. Ask questions!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

10 Tips for Attending a Jewish Funeral

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

This is another post with which I hope to make Jewish life a little more accessible. 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. It is also a mitzvah people tend to avoid: death is scary, graves are scary, and loss is painful.  Jewish funeral etiquette is slightly different from secular or Christian 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, some psalms, 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. 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 disrupt the flow of the service.

8. SHIVA. There may be an announcement about shiva, the gathering at the home for (traditionally) seven days after the burial. If the family announces specific times, go only at those times. 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.
More articles about Jewish Mourning customs: