Jewish burial traditions: How the old is immanently new
Rebecca Lillian is a Rabbi at the Egalitarian Synagogue of the Judiska Församlingen Malmö, as well as a Project Leader at Open Skåne, a multicultural organisation which organises and supports social cohesion among different peoples in the South of Sweden. She currently works on a project called “The Jewish-Muslim Partnership,” which tries to build bridges between Jews and Muslims. She is originally from Chicago, USA, and has been living in Malmö for six years.
This interview took Place on the 16th of March, 2018.
“The thing is, in Judaism, a great many of Jews today, who are not orthodox, or super involved, unfortunately don’t understand that Judaism has some really amazing traditions around death, dying and mourning. Traditions which are really designed to ease the discomfort of dying and to comfort the mourners. And when you think about how ancient these rituals are, it’s pretty amazing. They seem to correspond with a lot of modern views about how to deal with death and dying. I think that’s extraordinary. They go back at least 1000 years, if not more. Some of them, like what I’m about to say, goes back about 2000 years.
So, when a person is dying. What I should say first is that in Judaism — how did I hear this? It was so good and succinct. Something like, in Judaism, “life is meant to be preserved, but death is not meant to be prolonged.” So, when a person enters into a stage where they are actively dying, in modern parlance, when the doctor says to you, “there’s nothing more to do, she may die tonight or tomorrow” — when you reach that stage, there are things that one is supposed to do for that person, to make sure that the passage between life and death is as comfortable as possible. You’re supposed to talk to that person, not talk about them, around them, as if they can’t hear — you’re not supposed to leave them alone. And that seems to correspond very much with what you hear from modern people who talk about the dying process.”
“Again, when a person dies, it is crucial in Jewish tradition not to leave their body alone, from the moment of death to the moment of burial — which is meant to be as soon as possible. In some places it’s done in 24 hours. There are also these people who are called ‘guardians,’ whose task is to sit with the deceased. In communities that are close-knit, we get people to sign up to volunteer to do that in two to three hour shifts. In the absence of that, a Jewish funeral home will have people that they pay, usually retirees who will be a guardian. This is a problem in Sweden because there are no Jewish funeral homes and nobody has heard of it. Here it can take a long time between death and burial — I’ve seen like, two weeks.”
“Judaism is a very communal centred religion. So it’s not like a church where you have a priest or minister who knows everything or does everything. In a Jewish community, a lot of people participate and they know what they are supposed to do. The two main tasks for the community when someone dies are 1) to honor the dead, and 2) comfort the mourners. There’s a very special process for what happens to a dead person between death and burial, which is done by a group of volunteers. There’s a group called ‘the sacred society,’ and they are the ones that perform the rituals. First, it involves a washing of the body: men do men, and women do women. The body is washed in a ritualistic way, and then they are dressed, sometimes in regular clothes, although that’s not traditional. What is traditional is to use a white shroud, and if they wore a “tallit,” or a Jewish prayer shawl — do you know what a tallit is? They have these long fringes which represent spiritual obligations. So when somebody dies, and if they wore a tallit in life, after they are bathed and dressed, they are buried in their tallit but the fringes are cut. To symbolise that they are no longer obligated to do these good deeds they were obligated to do in life. The Jewish rituals around death have a lot to do with getting us out of the denial we have about death, and to show the finality.”
“Following a funeral, there are a lot of rules regarding how to behave in mourning. Upon leaving the cemetery, people usually go to the home of the deceased or closest relative. You go there and comfort the mourners, and its customary to eat when you get there. And it’s customary to eat an egg, because that’s a symbol of life. Not everyone does it but that’s the tradition. There is a week of mourning, following a burial, where the immediate family stays home, doesn’t go to work — traditionally you don’t go anywhere, you just stay at home and people bring you food and people visit you and create comfort. The idea is that during the first week after a loved one has died, you’re too vulnerable, you don’t want to go out, so people come to you. And, you’re also not expected to go to work, or do anything that you normally would for a week, you just mourn. And then, you have a month of less intense mourning where you can go out but there are things that you don’t do – like you don’t go to parties, you don’t do anything that’s celebratory. And then after that month there is usually something to mark the end of the month — some kind of memorial, and it’s usually private. It’s not a big memorial service — it’s more like you invite some people over, and say a few words about your loved one.”
“What always amazes me about this is the continued relevance of these ancient principles. And, I have to say they really work. My father died when I was very young, it was my senior year in college, and he died very suddenly. We did the regular things like sitting shiva and people came over for a week. And then I went back to school, I sort of somehow managed, and I graduated and moved on with my life. But I didn’t go through that whole long process which I just described — and then when my mother died, I was already a Rabbinical student, and we had learned all of these traditions, and I had friends and teachers who knew about them too, and I followed them, and it made a difference. I say this having gone through this mourning process — even the parts that sound almost vindictive, almost like punishment, like: ‘ok, now you’re in grief and you can’t do anything, and can’t go to any parties — poor you.’ But, you don’t want to go to parties when you’re mourning, you know? And the nice thing for me about it — after my mother’s death, was to be able to say, ‘no, I’m in mourning, I don’t want to go to that big party.’ And then, one of my good friends was getting married, and I thought to myself, ‘well this is odd, because I don’t want to not go to this wedding.’ And so I started talking some people for advice.
Here it’s important to say that Judaism really is a religion of rules, and then loopholes to get out of those rules. It’s just sort of legalistic in that way. So, somebody told me that people were talking about these problems even in ancient times. What to do when you’re in mourning and invited to a wedding — that’s not an unusual situation, you know? Life has grief and life has joy. So, what was suggested was that I go to the wedding, I go to the ceremony — and what the texts said was that if you make yourself useful at the party, then you’re going there to help out, not just to celebrate. At first, I thought that was a silly loophole, but it wasn’t. Because I went to the party, and I helped pass out food and pour drinks and whatever, and I was not in the mood to dance. Once it got to the point where people started dancing, I just went outside, and some people came outside just to talk to me and it felt right. If I hadn’t had that structure, I might have just gone and felt really weird. Because I was both happy for her and sad. You know? So I really think these rules are amazing. I have no desire to change them, and tell people that they don’t have to do the same, that there are things more modern that are better. You know, I think these rules are very good.”