Jewish Funerals

The Final Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow

We have all heard the words of the biblical poem, “the Lord is my Shepherrd, I shall not want…” on many different occasions. We can’t help but be moved by Psalm 23, especially when we hear it recited at a funeral. It express one of those truisms of life that leaves us contemplating the reality that we are mortal and that each of us comes from mystery and that to mystery we return.

If we live long enough, we will surely, at one time or another, be faced with the prospect of dealing with situations that are frightening or even dangerous. We will not be able to discern the outcome of overwhelming events. We will either be shoved into the “valley” or face the necessity of confronting our fears, looking into darkness of the valley of the shadow. And as we do, may we pray that we may find the “rod and staff’ that will comfort us and give the courage to emerge on the other side of the valley whole and, we hope, healing.

The “Rod and Staff”

The “rod and staff” of Jewish tradition is a group of rituals that is meant to help us find a measure of comfort and the beginning of healing from the loss of parents, siblings, perhaps spouses and most heart breaking, a child. The world reverts to chaos when we witness or hear of the death of a precious family member or perhaps a close friend. A relationship that provided an orientation and stability in our life is now missing and we flounder amidst the disbelief, confusion and our broken heart.

At such painful moments, the Jewish tradition provides the emotional and psychological structures that help us to cross from profound loss to mourning and, we pray, to the blessing of healing.

Funeral Experience

Throughout the thirty-six years of being a rabbi, I have been a part of the lives of congregants and non-congregants who have suffered the loss of parents at an old age and tragically of people who have lost love ones in horrible accidents: airplane crashes, head on automobile collisions and, perhaps worst of all, suicide. At those times I held hands, embraced men and women who cried on my shoulders, knowing that words could not convey what my heart felt.

I learned that there were moments when it was wiser for me to simply not say a word and that people derived a passing comfort when I held their hand and even cried with them. Inevitably, the question welling to the surface of the heart was the same: “why did my son die at such a young age?” Why was my wife stricken with cancer and leaving her suffering terrible pain? She was a wonderful person, so loving.”

In these circumstances I learned to say, “The question you’re asking comes from your pain, from your heart. Let me tell you what I think and what helps me to deal with my losses. What I am about to share with you may not be so much an answer to your question as it is an attitude and really a belief about why we are here in this world of hurt and pain, this world of accident.”

My View on Why We are Here

I imagine that before we are born we are disembodied spirits, let’s say, in heaven. One day of eternity, God comes to us and we bask in the radiance of the Eternal’s holiness. Spirit, God says, this is a beautiful day in eternity, and a very special one for you. Today, dear spirit, is the time for you to make a choice between two possibilities: you can remain here with me in heaven or you can be born in the world of flesh and bone—the world of human beings.

So consider this: If you remain here with me, you will continue to be a disembodied sprit, beyond hurt and pain, and beyond any doubts about why you exist. I love you with all my heart; you are my creation and you are holy, beyond any measure and worth. Here in heaven you will see my face and glory in the radiance of my holiness; it will never be hidden from you. I will instruct you in the great mysteries of what I have created and you will glory in them. Remember, here you will not feel no touch or pain.

Should you, however, decide to be born in flesh and blood, you will experience emotion and pain, exultation and sadness. Disappointment will be part of your life as will doubt. There may even be times when you wish you had never been born. Above all, you will come to understand that life is fleeting and you will never know the moment of your death. In this world of accident everything is impermanent, transitory. In the world of humans you will also come to feel and learn happiness, friendship and, above all, love. You will see the sun rise and set. You will be in awe of your feelings as you realize that you are part of a wonderful, beautiful and miraculous Creation. You will come to know the beauty of a blossoming flower. And when you touch the skin of another and your bodies intertwine, you will feel ecstasy as you lose yourself in the other. When a child will be born in the world, you will surely say, “This is God’s miracle.”

As you live in the world you will realize that although your life is temporary, I have granted you three gifts: I will implant within you the seed of your own sense of worthwhileness, and I will implant within you the desire to seek and fulfill your life’s purpose, your destiny. And last of all, I will remind you from time to time that I will be waiting for you when you are ready to return to me.

This is my story and this is how I end it: “since we are in this world, we surely made the choice to be here.” The story doesn’t talk about heaven or hell, rather it is a metaphor that has the purpose of shifting the focus from death to life: we can choose a life of healing, one that may be blessed with untold happiness on the road of our life’s journey.

My Role as Rabbi

I want to be there for you at the time of loss and grief as your rabbi: as a person who has himself experienced the loss of parents and has made a significant and ongoing effort to listen to what is in people’s heart and not just their words. I consider this kind of listening to be a virtue: listening not just with my head but also with my heart.

My participation in this part of your family’s life begins when we meet and you help me to get acquainted with your family and the family member who has died. I begin this way because I don’t want to be “just the rabbi who did the service and didn’t know us.” I would much prefer to be the rabbi who made it a point of getting to know your family so that I can do honor to your deceased relative and also bring integrity to the funeral service. As part of our meeting, I will explain the service to your family and I will discuss with you who will deliver the eulogy and who will otherwise participate in the service. I will suggest the number of people who will speak and when; I will also be delighted to discuss when and if it is appropriate for young children to participate.

Paramount to all of what I will discuss with you will be the mourning process psychologically and from the viewpoint of Judaism: I will touch on what you might experience as part of your mourning and importantly what your child or children may experience and how to help all of you cope with your loss. Below is more information about my services at this time of loss and grief.

Funeral

The Jewish funeral service is not lengthy or complicated. It begins either at sanctuary or at gravesite. In the sanctuary prayers are offered and a eulogy is offered after which mourners, family and friends make their way to the grave site. There additional prayers are recited and the casket is lowered into the open grave.

Now, before everyone leaves the cemetery, the mourners and others present have the opportunity of fulfilling an act of kindness for someone who is unable to reciprocate. Each person takes a turn of filling the grave with a shovel that is turned over to show that a person has died, and earth is poured into the grave.

Shiva

With the conclusion of the cemetery service, the mourners retreat to the house that they have designated for mourning for the seven days of Shiva. The term Shiva literally means seven; these are the number of days the mourners traditionally remain in the house of mourning to receive condolences from non-mourning relatives and friends, who also bring food for the mourners who are relieved from having to cook. In the evening, usually after dinner, family and friends gather at the house of mourning to form a Minyan (a “congregation”) so to allow the mourners to recite the Kaddish prayer for which it is necessary to have at least ten Jews. Thus, a Minyan is gathered for each of the seven days for evening worship.

Sheloshim

On the morning of the seventh day, the Shiva comes to an end and Sheloshim (“thirty”) begins. This is a period of time that will last until the thirtieth day after burial, when the mourners are no longer housebound. Men and women return to work but they obtain from attending parties. They are still in a state of mourning but not as intense as during Shiva.

Unveiling

The total period of mourning is twelve months during which a son is traditionally commanded to recite the Kaddish eleven of those months for a parent. Among American Jews it has become customary for the family in mourning to arrange for an unveiling on first anniversary of a relative’s death. Family and friends gather at the cemetery, where a cover has been placed over the memorial stone. As the service begins, the cover is lifted from the stone and prescribed prayers are recited to commemorate the occasion.

“May the One who is the Foundation of all life and creation comfort you in the midst and along with the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” You mourn not alone — we mourn with you, all of us.

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