The Ultimate Act of Kindness
There is nothing that can fully prepare us for the death of a loved one. Sometimes we are caught unawares, but even when we think that we have thought everything through, we find that the finality of death changes everything. The emotions that overwhelm us prevent us from being truly prepared for such a moment.
Thankfully, the knowledge that our Emunah family will be there for us brings a measure of comfort. Our Bereavement Committee, clergy, and Executive Director are always ready to be of help. Further, we can attend to some practical matters before a death to ensure that we will be emotionally fully present, when that final hard moment arrives.
Sitting down with Rabbi Fel or me to discuss matters can be of great help. Often members come in to meet with us long before a crisis to discuss their purchase of a burial plot or the prepayment of a funeral at a local funeral home. This becomes an opportunity not only to talk through the various options and choices, but also to discuss the critical values that infuse a Jewish funeral. It goes without saying that we will also meet with members during times of crisis.
We have produced numerous resources to help members of our community during a time of loss or even long before. First and foremost, Temple Emunah’s publication, A Measure of Mourning, contains basic information about dying, death, consoling, mourning, and remembering. Second, our website (click “Adult Education” tab under Learning and scroll down) contains the course packet compiled by Beth Levine and Kathy Macdonald for the three-session adult education class on mourning that I taught in 2013. The website also contains recordings of the three sessions and the audio of the course I taught in 2014: “Does the Soul Survive?”
Many times people ask Rabbi Fel and me about our policies for funerals. I have been asked to clarify a number of issues and policies vis-à-vis Temple Emunah’s burial practices. This article will attempt to clarify and explain our approach. In addition, you may have questions or may want to discuss these and other issues long before a death is anticipated; we are both available for those conversations as well.
When Abraham buries his wife Sarah, he first purchases the land. Our tradition considers this to be most significant and requires the Jewish community to be in charge of Jewish cemeteries. In earlier times, this was to ensure that Jewish practices were kept and that the community could care for its deceased. While relations with those beyond the Jewish community have vastly improved today, we still honor the need for burial in a Jewish cemetery, in ground that has been sanctified for this purpose.
Our Temple Emunah cemetery is located in the Beit Olam Cemetery in Wayland, a 20-minute drive from the synagogue. It is meaningfully arranged in the shape of a Magen David (star of David) and accommodates the burial of Jews and Krovei Yisrael—people who have made Temple Emunah their home, although they have not formally joined the Jewish people through the ritual of conversion. If you would like more information about that, please be in touch.
There are, of course, many other Jewish cemeteries and we also utilize burial plots in the Jewish section of a town cemetery (e.g.: Westview in Lexington). It should be stated, however, that we strongly recommend a Jewish cemetery, since town cemeteries have given us problems with a number of issues including Sunday burials and providing enough earth to cover the casket.
2. Status of the Deceased
The deceased person must be halakhically Jewish or among Krovei Yisrael. Krovei Yisrael are wonderful sustainers of our community and the Jewish people and, as such, we will officiate at their funerals at the graveside or a funeral home or in our social hall. We will not officiate at a funeral of a non-Jewish person who is not among Krovei Yisrael or is not a member of Temple Emunah.
3. Washing the Deceased
H.esed shel Emet—the ultimate, true act of kindness is what we call the mitzvah of helping to bury someone. This is because, for every other action we do for someone in this life, the beneficiary may have the opportunity to repay us. Once someone has died, she or he can never repay the kindness.
The central act of kindness is the ritual purification of the body of the meyt (deceased), called: “tohorah.” Rabbi Fel and I require tohorah and now, thanks to our new Community H.evra Kadisha of Greater Boston, we can finally all participate in this most powerful mitzvah.
Some have objected to tohorah and said they do not want people washing their bodies. The reality is that civil law requires cleaning the body—often done by a funeral director who is alone and simply doing this in a perfunctory manner to meet the health codes. Tohorah will be done by a group of people who volunteer to wash and spiritually purify the body as an act of pure loving-kindness. This is mostly done by pouring water over each part of the body by a group of the same gender. The laws of modesty are paramount and the body is kept covered as the group performs these rites, revealing only one small portion at a time. Prayers are recited and the sacredness of the task is paramount. Now that we have dozens of members of our community performing this mitzvah, there are many people with whom you can speak about its power and significance. Having seen both forms of washing, there is simply no comparison.
A note about cremation: cremation is seen by our tradition as an act of desecration. The body is supposed to decompose, not be burned to ashes in a matter of hours. The resonances of cremation as we live in the shadows of the Shoah are also disconcerting.
Sometimes, people who are facing death express wishes that are not in accordance with the tradition. While, in general, we try to honor all deathbed requests, we are not permitted to violate Jewish law by cremating someone. As difficult as it may be, the tradition mandates that we disobey these wishes, since observance of the halakhah in this case is to the benefit of the deceased. It also honors the needs of the mourners who can then have the closure of participating in the burial.
4. Burial Attire
We are not permitted to bury our loved ones in clothing. In ancient times, people were buried in their clothes. However, since the well-off could afford to be buried in nice clothing and the poor could not, the difference between rich and poor continued after death. Our rabbis forbade that practice, teaching that all people should be buried in takhrikhin—the simple white burial shrouds that have been our custom for thousands of years.
The H.evra Kadisha lovingly dresses the meyt/ah (masculine/feminine forms for deceased) in the takhrikhin after tohorah in the same fashion that the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) was dressed in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem). And thus, the meyt/ah has become not only spiritually purified, but prepared to meet the Creator as the Kohein Gadol was purified to meet God on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies. If you would like more information about our H.evra Kadisha, which was launched by our members Judith Himber, Hal Miller-Jacobs, and me, please be in touch with them or check out the website: www.hevrakadisha.org.
5. Coffin and Burial
While in Israel to this day, there is no coffin at most funerals (for obvious reasons, exceptions include all military funerals and those who are victims of terrorist attacks), here in America, local laws mandate the use of a coffin. Our requirement is that the coffin be made of wood so that it naturally decomposes—metal is forbidden. As the tradition teaches, “dust to dust.” While we permit more elaborate wood, our strong recommendation is for a simple pine box. Like takhrikhin, this represents the ideal of burying everyone in the same fashion. Far better to give the additional costs of expensive coffins to tzedakah, etc.
6. Use of the Synagogue Building
Finally, for the funeral to be held in our shul, the deceased must be a member of the shul. If the meyt/ah is an auxiliary member or a parent or an adult child of a member, we will officiate at a funeral home or graveside. For this service, there is a required donation to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, which is donated to the synagogue. Those rates are set by the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis.
Please note that, while there are many funerals held in synagogues today, that was not always the case. In order to balance the holiness of our sanctuary with the need to hold funerals in our shul, we remove the sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) from the Ark. That transforms the space, helping us enter into a different frame of mind.
Once the grave is filled in with earth, the focus of the community moves from the deceased to the mourners. Therefore, regardless of how the burial takes place, the community gathers to support the mourners through the seudat havra’ah (meal of consolation), Shiva (seven day mourning period), and recitation of Kaddish. Sometimes, a memorial service or shloshim observance (at the conclusion of the 30-day period of mourning) can be held. We also accommodate the need to mourn after Shiva or during the intermediate days of a festival when Shiva is not observed, with a yom or yemei neh.amah—a day or days of consolation that functions like Shiva.
We are fortunate that our Bereavement Committee can assist by providing a house sitter during the funeral to set up the seudat havra’ah, as well as minyan leaders for Shiva or yemei neh.amah. Finally, we are most fortunate that Temple Emunah holds daily minyanim—morning and evening—so that one can recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for the traditional 11 months.
I hope this has been helpful and pray that together we as a community will perform the mitzvot (commandments) of k’vod hameyt (honoring the meyt/ah) and nih.um aveilim (comforting mourners), bringing us closer to each other and to haMakom, the Omnipresent.
Rabbi David Lerner