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Breathing New Life into Jewish Funeral Practice

Breathing New Life into Jewish Funeral Practice1
By David Zinner


Maurice Lamm, in his classic primer The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning said, "What will be left that is Jewish in our Jewish way of death? And if there is no Jewish way of death, what Jewish way of life could there have been?"

Today we are all mourners. We have experienced the loss of a critical part of our Jewish life cycle. In just the last few generations it seems we have forgotten or stopped practicing many of our funeral and mourning traditions.

For example, when my father and grandparents escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, they came to St. Louis. My grandparents, William and Eva Zinner, were not only active in their Orthodox synagogue, but were also active in the Orthodox Chevra Kaddisha (Holy Society). They were also members of Ohave Shalom, a non-profit cemetery association made up of German immigrants. When I visit this cemetery of less than 100 graves, I recognize many of the names of our family friends.

What has happened over the last 50 years to distance us from these important Jewish rituals? Maybe we are overwhelmed with television and newspaper articles that show too much death. Maybe we have developed an over-reliance on the medical profession. Maybe we know full well the fragility of life in a nuclear age. Maybe our ability to master the world has caused us to lose our spiritual beliefs. Or maybe we’re just scared of death.

As we withdrew death from its place in Jewish life-cycle events, Jewish funerals and burials have become blatantly commercial and, in many cases, removed from religious control. The economy abhors a vacuum.

Traditionally, when a new Jewish Community was founded, its first obligation was to provide a Chevra Kaddisha to prepare and bury the dead and help comfort the mourners. Now funeral practices in may Jewish communities are dictated by commercial funeral homes, while the Jewish community stands idly by.

The so-called "Jewish Funeral Home" is designed to prey upon the newly bereaved at their most vulnerable moments. The system is designed to force the traumatized family from their home into a funeral store. The lighting will be dim and the director will be friendly. But the bill will be steep financially, spiritually and religiously.

The naive enter the funeral home, trusting the funeral director. They are shown expensive caskets, often with metals such as copper or brass, with fancy woodwork, even with innersprings and pillows.

The relatives are led to believe that spending more on a casket honors the deceased. If they express interest in a simpler casket, they are often shown a dusty casket in the far reaches of a cold basement. The unprepared mourner, in an attempt to maintain dignity, experiences yet another loss.

Most commercial funeral homes encourage viewing. This is a critical issue because it cascades into many others. If there is a viewing, the funeral director explains, then there must be embalming so the deceased will look good. The family is sometimes left with the impression that embalming is required by the state. They are usually told (falsely) that embalming is required to have the casket transported across state lines. And, of course, if there is viewing and embalming, it becomes very difficult to perform the traditional Taharah (ritual washing) and to dress the deceased in Tachrichim (traditional shrouds).

These funerals homes often provide pitifully little guidance about real Jewish tradition and custom. Not often enough do "Jewish Funeral Homes" explain that embalming and viewing are not part of the Jewish tradition. They rarely explain the purpose or tradition of Taharah and Shmirah (guarding)?

The problem extends to our Jewish cemeteries which are valiantly trying to keep up the commercial aspects of the death industry. For example, most cemeteries require that caskets be buried in a concrete vault (liner) which costs $800 to $1,500.

The ostensible reason for the vault is to reduce maintenance costs. When the casket deteriorates, the ground will sink. Of course this contradicts the reason we bury our dead in the first place. Decomposition is the point - from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Jewish cemeteries could eliminate concrete vaults, bury caskets in the earth and use the cost of the vault to level the grave after the ground has settled.

There are other paths open to us. Here are five principles that can direct the examination of our Jewish funeral practices.

  • Jewish rituals around death and mourning are sacred and meaningful mitzvot (commandments).
  • Mourners should comforted, assisted, and protected from commercial exploitation.
  • Congregations should encourage and enhance traditional Jewish funeral practice.
  • The Chevra Kaddisha should play a central role in all areas related to death and mourning.
  • Education of congregants should take place before they become mourners.

For the Columbia Jewish Congregation, the other five reconstructionist synagogues in the Greater Washington area and for numerous other Reform, Conservative and even Orthodox synagogues, these principles mean helping develop and utilizing the contract of the Greater Washington Jewish Funeral Practices Committee. The Committee has negotiated a simple, traditional, low cost funeral available to any CJC member.

The funeral contract provides for the pickup of the met (body), transportation to a funeral home where the Taharah is done and where the met is dressed in Tachrichim. It includes a plain wood casket, transportation to the synagogue and then the grave site. Over 200 funerals were done in 1996 under this contract. The price is $785.

It also means that our Synagogues encourage awareness of Jewish tradition and Jewish funeral practice. We educate and encourage our members to do Keriah (ripping a garment), Tahara, use Tachrichim, provide the meal of condolence, sit Shiva and say Kaddish.

Some Chevrot are helping to develop or standardize new traditions. They encourage the use of the synagogue for funerals, play a more active role in the areas of counseling, and coordinate funeral and burial arrangements.

Synagogues are doing a better job of supporting bereaved families. When someone in our congregation dies, we reach out to the mourners. We try to provide readings, and have a bereavement workshop on Yom Kippur.

We are also trying to set up expectations. When a relative dies out of town, we expect the bereaved to sit Shiva for two days in our community. This allows them to be comforted by their friends and congregants. It also allows the friends and congregants to reach out to the mourners.

We’ve also intentionally modified the Shiva service. After the Amidah, we pause for the mourners to talk about the deceased. This part of the service can involve grandchildren, scrap books and funny/sad stories. It provides the mourners a structured opportunity to talk about their loved ones at the same time while the community learns new things about the deceased, their accomplishments, and their interests.

In the future we hope to organize ongoing group discussions of loss and daily services to provide the opportunity to say Kaddish.

Our challenge is to build a caring, Jewish community, to breathe new life into Jewish Funeral Practices.

1Published in Reconstructionist Today - Summer, 1997

David Zinner served a two year term as President of the Columbia Jewish Congregation (CJC) in Columbia, MD. One of the accomplishments during his term was the Jewish Reconstructionist Affiliation of his 300 + family congregation.

David is the chair of the CJC Chevra Kaddisha and the Vice-President of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington.