Image: The body of former Chief Justice Earl Warren rests on a black draped bier in the Main Hall of the Supreme Court, on July 11, 1974. (Associated Press)
The recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, z”l, has brought up some curiosity and a number of myths about Jewish funeral practices.
Jewish mourning practice and Christian morning practices are quite different, and I am interested in seeing how the two sets of expectations are balanced during the coming week. One example of the difference came up the night after she died, when the crowd that gathered spontaneously outside the Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. began to sing “Amazing Grace.” Jewish observers found this jarring, because the hymn is Christian and the lyrics make explicit reference to conversion to Christianity. However, this hymn almost more than any other is associated in the American public mind with mourning (see its use in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, for example.) It was certainly intended as an expression of sorrow and respect, whatever the lyrics.
Timing of the Funeral – Sometimes you will hear that we Jews bury our dead within 24 hours of death. In real life, that may mean the next day and it may not. Funerals may be delayed by a number of factors: for instance, we allow time for family to gather, and if the local law requires an autopsy, the funeral may be delayed for as long as officials require. In summary, the body of the deceased must be laid to rest as quickly as secular and Jewish law allow, with time for family to gather if needed.
Justice Ginsberg died on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the day before Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is one of the holiest days of the Jewish Year, and as such, we do not bury the dead that day. Most observant Jews will be in synagogue for at least one day, and many for two. Sunday is also a holy day for Jews who observe two days of Rosh Hashanah, so the earliest day on which interment could take place is Monday, Sept 21.
The New York Times outlined the plans as of Sept 19:
A ceremony inside the court is expected as early as Tuesday, according to someone familiar with the plan, followed by an outdoor viewing that would adhere to social distancing guidelines. A small funeral service is also expected to be held for Justice Ginsburg, who died on Friday at 87, as well as a burial at Arlington National Cemetery later in the week. Her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, was buried at Arlington in 2010.– New York Times, accessed 9/19/2020
“Viewing” is another practice that is differently understood by Jews and Christians. Generally speaking, Jews do not have a public viewing of the body, because we feel it violates the privacy and modesty of the deceased. Moreover, Jews absolutely do not embalm our dead unless required to do so by the state. However, Justice Ginsberg is not an ordinary citizen, and the public secular mourning in the United States almost always includes some sort of “lying in state.” I speculate that the Court and the family will make a compromise, and that her closed coffin will be present for the “outdoor viewing.”
Burial with family is a Jewish custom, indeed a Jewish value.
Mourning for Justice Ginsburg will be a process, both for her family and for the nation. Her family would normally “sit shiva” for up to seven days after interment, then observe sheloshim, a period of lighter mourning, for 30 days. Her children may choose to mourn publicly for the next eleven months by saying Kaddish. For the nation, I fear that it will not be such a calm process, because there are many political repercussions to her passing.
I hope that all who cherish her memory will do everything they can to be kind and respectful to her family. When she was alive, they shared her time and attention with the public service to which she dedicated much of her life. Now that she has died, theirs is the greatest loss.
Knowing that Justice Ginsburg was a practical woman who was well aware of the approach of her death, I imagine that she has left instructions as to her wishes.
(Which reminds me: are there things you would want family to do or not do at your passing? If you don’t leave those instructions in writing that meets the standards of your state, you are leaving things up to chance. It is always a good idea to make a written Advance Directive Form or Power of Attorney for Health Care, as well as a will and funeral instructions, and to let those close to you know your feelings and the location of those documents. Otherwise, nothing is sure. Forms for such documents are available online – but don’t stop with a form. TALK to your loved ones.)