Sit shiva for seven days. Spend another 30 in sheloshim — a secondary mourning period — and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for a year. Between all of its mourning rituals, Judaism offers plenty of structure to mourners, which can offer comfort and a structured space in which to grieve.
But as many rituals as there are, there are even more ways to make them one’s own.
“There’s so many ways that grief and mourning are aligned from person to person, and it is so unique and personal,” said Naomi Less, an associate director at Lab/Shul, a New York Jewish community that welcomes members who don’t believe in God. With a significant number of people who identify as Jewish also identifying as not religiously observant, that adaptability in ritual has begun to prove key to ensuring that age-old rituals stay relevant — and that even the nonreligious find comfort in spaces where those rituals are observed.
“Your own experience of grief is wildly different for each loss,” Less said.
Even with religion taken out of the equation, it can be hard to negotiate your own grief along other people’s ways of grieving. When different approaches to religion come into play, especially within a family or communal group all mourning the same loss, it can be particularly tricky.
A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that about a quarter of Jews do not identify with the Jewish religion, meaning they consider themselves culturally and ethnically Jewish, but may also identify as atheists or agnostic. That number gets higher for Jews under the age of 50, with four of every 10 Jews aged 18-29 identifying as nonreligious.
The need for common practices for handling family divides is therefore increasing. To cope with this challenge, Less suggests adding practices that feel right, rather than subtracting ones that don’t.
“If they’re doing a more traditional funeral service, maybe there’s a piece of poetry you can bring in, maybe there’s a song as people are entering the space that evokes a memory,” she said.
That approach can help make sure there’s room in mourning rituals for everyone.
Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan, which also welcomes secular Jews, offers similar advice.
“Find the reading, find the piece, find the memory that you’d like to bring to the occasion,” Yoreh said. For example, many of the secular mourners he works with like to recite the Torah passage that begins, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
When there’s real disagreement within families over how to observe mourning rituals for a loved one, it can be helpful to bring in a rabbi or someone else who can mediate. “Sometimes it’s helpful to have somebody to sit with you to talk about these things, because the emotions are running so high,” Less said. “It’s just nice to have somebody sit with you, actively listen, share back, and try to find commonalities for families.”
When the pandemic hit, Lab/Shul, where Less works, compiled a guide to mourning for its congregants, consistent with its emphasis on artistic expression.
The guide, which is available online, is largely geared toward adapting traditions for social distancing. But it also offers ways to mix up traditions that might be more palatable to those who aren’t religious, such as making a playlist of songs the loved one liked or volunteering to honor their memory.
“It’s kind of a glossary of Jewish mourning and the cycles of mourning,” Less said. “And then it offers different kinds of ideas for creative ways to make it your own, ways to make it more personal.”
Lab/Shul also offers a weekly virtual Kaddish call that usually attracts about 20 people. She says it has been a meaningful way for mourners from all walks of Jewish life to create community.
“These folks who came because they heard about this call are now wanting to connect in person,” Less said. “There are groups that have connected in different parts of the country because folks call in from everywhere.”
For people who want to say Kaddish but don’t believe in God, the synagogue also offers alternatives to the prayer in English that use nonreligious language.
Of course, there’s no one set of customs that all secular Jews will want to follow when it comes to mourning.
“Secular Jews tend to be individualistic and are not seeking those unifying rituals, necessarily,” Yoreh said. For them, resisting structure might be part of the point.
My father was 92 years old. He had congestive heart failure and COPD. He was living on oxygen and a dozen medications that had kept him alive since a debilitating stroke paralyzed him forty years ago. Last year, when his doctors told him that he was dying in a matter of weeks, or months, he urgently, desperately needed to end his life on his own terms.
My phone would ring in my Brooklyn apartment.
“You have to help me die today, Rachel. I need to die today, please.”
“I can’t help you die today, Dad.”
“Rachel, please, you have to help me.”
This is how it went, day after day, sometimes several times a day, until my brother realized that in California, where they live, it was legal for my father to choose to end his own life.
And that is how I found myself at my father’s bedside in Los Angeles, supporting him as he took his own life, as his daughter and as his rabbi.
Judaism holds life sacred. In Genesis, when creating humans, G-d sees that it is very good. G-d creates us in G-d’s own image and breathes life into human beings, giving human life supreme value. The Mishnah teaches that saving one life is like saving an entire world. Pikuach nefesh (saving a life) supersedes all other mitzvot, except those forbidding murder, adultery, and idolatry. This love of life is the foundation of Jewish ethics and has led our tradition to stand firmly against any action that would lead to death.
Thus we read in the “Comprehensive Guide to Medical Halakha,” published in 1990 by Abraham S. Abraham:
“One may not hasten a death, even that of a patient who is suffering greatly and for whom there is no hope of a cure, even if the patient asks that this be done. To shorten the life of a person, even a life of agony and suffering, is forbidden.”
And in “Modern Medicine and Jewish Ethics” by Fred Rosner in 1991:
“Any positive act designed to hasten the death of the patient is equated with murder in Jewish law …. only the Creator, who bestows the gift of life, may relieve man of that life, even when it has become a burden rather than a blessing.”
I am a rabbi. I know well Judaism’s ban on euthanasia. But when I understood that my father would take his own life, I knew without a doubt that I would be by his side. He had soldiered on in this life for 92 years, uncomplaining, to be there for us and for his grandchildren. Now he wanted to leave the world, and all I could do was honor his wishes.
As this became my father’s story, I began to inquire more deeply into our tradition and found voices questioning this consensus in Jewish law. For example, Rabbi Leonard Kravitz argues that the story of the torturous death of Rabbi Hananiah at the hands of the Romans, which is usually read as a proof-text for the ban on euthanasia, can equally be read to make the case that hastening death when death is inevitable is an act of mercy. Rabbi Kravitz argues that Jews who are terminally ill and suffering should be able to choose a mitah yafah, a good death, which Rashi defines as sheyamut maher, that they should die quickly, particularly given that the Talmud prescribes this kind of death for criminals who will be executed by the court. If criminals deserve a good death, a death in which they are spared long, slow agony and suffering, Rabbi Kravitz argues, shouldn’t those who’ve committed no crime be allowed to choose this as well?
I raise this now in this public forum because my sister has made a film about my father’s death called “Last Flight Home,” and her film is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival today. In the film, viewers will see me, acting as a daughter and also a rabbi, loving and supporting my father as he ends his own life. I am aware that this will be upsetting and even offensive to many in the Jewish community. I do not wish to create controversy on this issue, and I would not have chosen to make this film. I would not have chosen for my father’s death to be viewed by the public at all, and I would not have chosen to champion this issue. But I have cared for others who desperately wished for this choice at the end of their lives, and I think it might be time for the Jewish people to reconsider our views on this important matter.
March 3rd will be my father’s first yahrzeit. May his memory forever be a blessing.
In the words of Ben Sira, the second century B.C.E. Jewish apocryphal sage: “We are all destined to die. We share it with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be.”
This is a fact of life. Yet, with each death we enter a mourning period that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004) has so eloquently described as five stages of grief:
Likewise, rabbinic scholars centuries ago comprehended the need to ‘concretize the abstract’ by embracing the grieving process even while standing at the grave of a loved one.
At the very moment when the heart is broken, Judaism mandates the public recitation of the Kaddish prayer thereby aiding the mourner to begin to move beyond denial by confronting death head-on.
The Kaddish, at this time of emotional upheaval, ever so slowly addresses the grieving process by encouraging the mourner to begin to accept a new reality with the ubiquitous reminder: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and helps those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:19)
In the ancient Aramaic prayer, the Kaddish asserts: “Yitgadal V’yitkadash Shmei Rabbah.” Magnified and sanctified be the great name of God throughout the world created according to the divine will.
These words underscore the words of the prophet Isaiah: “For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways declares the Lord. But, as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My plans above your plans.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9)
Poignantly, the psalmist reminds us that even though we may not comprehend God’s inscrutable will, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm for Thou art with me.” (Psalm 23:4)
Hence, with the recitation of the Kaddish, the mourner publicly declares there is indeed hope and redemption beyond this moment of unbearable pain. Step by step, the Kaddish provides the mourner with a ritual to traverse the stages of grief that will surely follow while embraced by a community of family and friends who provide comfort in the house of Shiva (seven days) where Kaddish will be recited, thereby sustaining the mourners in their quest for healing.
Moreover, in the words of an anonymous author, we discover an additional purpose in reciting Kaddish: “… if there is one thing I beg you to take to heart, it is this: Say Kaddish after me, but not for me. Kaddish is the unique Jewish link that binds the generations of Israel. The grave hears not the Kaddish, but the speaker does, and the words will echo in your heart …” (“Jewish Reflections on Death” by Rabbi Jack Riemer)
Thus, the Kaddish not only connects one generation to another; it also ‘jump-starts’ the grieving process in the midst of a caring and loving community, so that the mourner can again begin to experience a measure of hope, even in moments of despair.
But first the women, members of a Jewish burial society in Pittsburgh, must sing a final prayer.
They press the Mute button.
On Zoom their voices refuse to ring as one, so one singer takes the lead while the undertaker, who is Catholic, wraps the body in simple white shrouds.
D’Alessandro Funeral Home & Crematory occupies a building that has cared for the deceased and bereaved in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, since 1897. But this — a Catholic funeral director participating via Zoom in a centuries-old Jewish tradition — is likely a first, said Dustin D’Alessandro, the mortuary’s supervisor.
It’s preferable to perform the ritual in person, said Malke Frank, founder of New Community Chevra Kadisha of Greater Pittsburgh.
But many members of the burial society are elderly and fear entering a funeral home before there is a vaccine for Covid-19, the deadly illness caused by this coronavirus. Like so many other events during this pandemic, the taharah, the name for the ritual, is performed virtually, with a bit of ingenuity and help from undertakers.
While Frank and her fellow volunteers visualize washing and drying the body, D’Alessandro walks with them through the ritual step-by-step.
“We consider them partners in what we do,” said Frank.
Ancient rituals have been forced to change
Religious rites evolve over time, said David Zinner, president of Kavod v’Nichum, a national group for Chevra Kadishas, which is Hebrew for “sacred society.”
The resurgent pandemic, which has hammered the US with new urgency in recent weeks, has sent that evolution into hyperspeed.
While public health officials are still learning about how Covid-19 spreads, the CDC has said “it may be possible” that people could become infected by touching the body of someone who has died of the virus.
“We went from caring for a person’s body the way we have for four hundred years to suddenly not being able to do that anymore,” Zinner said.
The coronavirus has changed so much about how we live, it was inevitable that it would alter how we die as well. The graveside gatherings, shoulder-to-shoulder prayers, consoling hugs and timeworn rituals have been canceled or curtailed for fears of contagion.
But grief abhors a vacuum. So traditions have been adapted, as clerics turn to emergency measures prescribed in their religious laws. That’s especially true of rituals, as in Judaism and Islam, that rely on touch and intimacy with the deceased. In some instances, funeral home directors and burial societies across the country are crossing religious lines to help perform the sacred rites of passage.
D’Alessandro, who has participated in 12 burial purifications, said Frank’s society taught him about the meaning behind the rituals, imparting a sense of their importance to the living and the dead.
“I’m glad they’re allowing me to do it, despite not having a background in Judaism,” said D’Alessandro. “It’s just an incredible thing to be a part of.”
He’s insisted on providing full Islamic burials
When Covid-19 raged through New York City earlier this year, Imtiaz Ahmed was proud that his was one of the few funeral homes that still offered ghusl, an Islamic purification ritual performed on the recently deceased. As in the Jewish tahara, the body is cleansed, usually by a close family member and burial expert, then dressed in simple white robes before it is buried.
It was quite a turnaround for the Pakistani-American, who used to drive a cab and was squeamish about touching dead bodies. Now, Ahmed says, he has a clear mission.
“Once Covid started I realized that I had made the right decision,” said Ahmed, 39, “because people need my help.”
But some of the employees at his Al-Rayyan Funeral Services in Brooklyn’s “Little Pakistan” neighborhood were more reluctant. Several quit, citing health conditions or fear of contagion, Ahmed said.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends taking precautions with rituals that involve touching the dead and urges funeral homes to suit up with proper protective equipment. It is not yet known whether dead bodies can transmit the disease, according to the CDC.
The Fiqh Council of North America, a group of scholars who offer opinions on Islamic law, said there are several alternatives to touching the bodies of Covid-19 victims. In a “worst case scenario,” the council said, Muslim leaders should adopt a different method of cleansing, using sand instead of water and not opening the body bag.
Others, such as Ahmed in Queens, consider Covid-19 victims martyrs, following the Prophet Muhammad’s teaching about believers who die in plagues.
“We believe that God forgives you for whatever you are not able to do,” said Yasir Qadhi, dean of academic affairs at the Islamic Seminary of America in Dallas and a member of the council of scholars. “If the government is asking you not to wash deceased bodies, as psychologically painful as that might be, it will not affect the deceased.”
Still, many Muslims feel guilty for not being able to provide full Islamic burials, said Dr. Edmund Tori, a medical doctor and president of the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
“When you modify the prayer, you are messing with something that is very, very dear to people,” said Tori, who said his society spent several months educating the community about changes to religious practices because of Covid-19.
Muslims in Baltimore were nearly as upset about alterations to the funeral prayers. In Islam, the funeral prayers, called janazah, are a communal obligation and typically draw large crowds to mosques.
Muslim funeral homes and mosques have tried to accommodate mourners by holding the prayers outdoors, in parking lots or other open spaces hospitable to social distancing.
But the desire and obligation to attend the prayers are so great, Tori said, that the Islamic Society of Baltimore has stopped sending funeral notifications — or sends them only to a small group of people close to the deceased.
When the architect of the Islamic Societies campus died of Covid-19, Tori said, leaders kept the news quiet, leading to some upset feelings.
“Let’s just say people were not happy,” said Tori. “Everyone wanted to be there. It took a lot for the community not to come.”
This group provides ‘midwives for the soul’
Zinner, the president of the national group for Chevra Kadishas, said the risks are too high for Jewish burial societies to perform the ritual purifications in person.
The live people in the room, not the deceased body, pose the greater danger, he said. Taharahs are often performed in small rooms, with people working and singing in close proximity.
“We have to recognize that the risk is high,” Zinner said, “and we have to wait until it’s reduced.”
Instead, Zinner recommends “spiritual taharas” like the virtual service in Pennsylvania.
But the Chevra Kadisha of Greater Washington, near the nation’s capital, is continuing to conduct in-person purification rituals, said Devorah Grayson, leader of the women’s section. (Women wash and dress women; men do the same for men.)
Grayson said her society has consulted with the National Institutes of Health and CDC and volunteers wear masks, face shields, two gowns and pairs of gloves, rain boots and disposable shoe coverings. Still, 35-45% of the society’s volunteers will not perform the ritual in person.
Grayson compared participating in the ritual to going grocery shopping in the pandemic.
“The first time I did it,” she said, “it was terrifying.”
But Grayson, who belongs to the Orthodox strand of Judaism, said she feels a holy obligation to help Jews on the threshold between this world and the next. One name for burial society volunteers is “midwives for the soul.”
When souls meet God, Grayson said, they should be dressed with dignity — pandemic or not.
And so, the volunteers will continue to perform the rituals. They have survived plagues before.
When the body is properly prepared, Grayson will help place it in the coffin, adding a little soil from Israel, and softly close the lid. The midwife’s job is over, and now the soul’s must begin.
Yesterday, the sun did not rise in my Bay Area home. My toddler who usually wakes at dawn, slept until 9am and woke up confused, pointing to a dark umber colored sky, obliterated by clouds of smoke from wildfires billowing all over the West Coast. Even the hummingbirds and bees in my backyard were disoriented.
This fall, we are not approaching an ordinary New Year. I will celebrate Rosh Hashanah in my living room, connected by video conference technology to my community, as California burns, hurricanes threaten the southeast, and the entire country faces a lethal virus. Everything is changing. We can no longer even depend on the sky to be blue.
We have all faced so much loss in the year that passed, but have we taken time to grieve?
Some of the losses of the past year have been obvious and clear: Precious people have died, countless homes and habitats have burnt down, and jobs have been lost. Other losses are more amorphous. We don’t know yet what we will get back of the world of 2019: Will our kids ever get to play freely again? Will we have predictable seasons in the future?
I am a rabbi who offers spiritual care for grieving and dying. I have learned from my clients that grief is essential; without naming the loss we are unable to draw together and comfort each other and we remain isolated in our suffering. There is a cavernous absence of public grieving for the momentous losses we all are facing in 2020.
Just consider the scale of resources given to grieving the 3,000 lives lost in 9/11, versus the 190,000 people (and counting) who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic in this country. Where are the large national memorial services, the plans for monuments, the presidential condolence visits? Much of this disparity is linked to who is dying (at least in the public imagination), and the prevailing belief that “only” old, sick, and disabled people die of COVID-19.
Mourning is humanizing, and its absence cracks open the door to atrocities.
My Jewish ancestors were snatched off the street by SS officers and buried in mass graves; my queer ancestors were denied funerals out of fear and bigotry as they died of AIDS. My disabled ancestors were warehoused in institutions, and often buried without names on their graves. My trans ancestors are left murdered in alleys, their cases growing cold, as I write this.
Despite this lack of official lamentation, they found ways to mourn and be mourned by each other. Grief has always been a way for disenfranchised people to claim our value.
After surviving the Holocaust in Belgium, my great-grandmother Rivka moved to England. Before she died, she took my father out to the coal heap behind their home: “Swear on this mountain,” she said to him, “that you will mourn for me.” To this day, I feel bound by this oath made by my nine-year-old father long before I was born, to grieve for this woman I never met, whose face looks so much like mine.
My friend, Stacey Park Milbern, died on May 19th, 2020, her 33rd birthday. She did not die from COVID-19, but from battling for care in the beleaguered medical system as a disabled activist and a person of color in an era of pandemic. I attended her funeral from my living room. I picked white geraniums and purple thyme from my garden and held my partner close. The internet was flooded with what Stacey taught us.
Disabled activist Alice Wong wrote an obituary on loving Stacey and the radical world of love and care she had built. Wong’s post was filled with Stacey’s own words on her legacy: “I do not know a lot about spirituality or what happens when we die, but my crip queer Korean life makes me believe that our earthly bodyminds is but a fraction, and not considering our ancestors is electing only to see a glimpse of who we are.”
Reading Stacey’s words and Wong’s tribute, I felt my own sense of self-love as a disabled person, restored by mourning for Stacey, at the same time as aching against the unfairness of it all.
Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the new year, but it is also a time to say good-bye to the year that past. Our ancestors, like us, lived in times of chaos and change. Tears are a central High Holy Day theme. All the traditional Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh HaShana speak of weeping.
The Shofar itself is a symbol of tears. Our sages teach that the ram’s horn we blow on Rosh Hashanah must be kakuf (bent) to reflect our own bodies bent over in grief; while shevarim (the broken blasts of the shofar) are meant to echo the sound of our own tears, they are always surrounded by tekiah (whole sounds). This teaches us that even though our heart has been broken it has the capacity to be whole again and, in fact, more complete for having encompassed brokenness.
Grief is transformative: When we name the immensity of loss, we also claim the depth of our capacity for love.
I had a miscarriage this summer — and it broke me in more ways than I could have imagined. At my nine-week appointment, I discovered, to my complete surprise, that I was experiencing a “missed abortion” – a pregnancy loss in which I’d had no miscarriage symptoms whatsoever. Not only did I have to make medical decisions while in shock, but I also struggled intensely to make sense of what I was feeling emotionally and spiritually.
With help, I recognized that I was deep in the throes of grief. Jewish tradition provides an incredible structure for mourners to grieve the death of a loved one. Yet nothing is prescribed for my miscarriage grief. When grieving, it can be harder to make any decision, large or small. I craved a prescription for what to do; that might have left me with fewer heart-wrenching decisions.
Nonetheless, I found healing and comfort in adapting Jewish rituals and traditions.
In honor of October being Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, here are some of the lessons I learned:
Jewish tradition teaches that we are not obligated to mourn a miscarriage or even the death of a baby who lives less than 30 days. In fact, we are taught that up through 40 days after conception (this would be just under 8 weeks pregnant in today’s terms, since counting begins at the woman’s last period, not at conception), the embryo is considered to be merely water (Yevamot 69b). This does not describe the emotional reality of many pregnant women or couples. Even in those early weeks, the connection to the embryo can be incredibly deep. And yet I recognize that mourning a miscarriage is not the same as mourning the death of a child or an adult. I didn’t lose a baby that I’d held. I didn’t even lose a fetus. I lost an embryo (the transition from embryo to fetus happens in the 11th week), but that embryo was supposed to make me a mother. That embryo was supposed to grow into a fetus. I would have delivered a baby, named and held my child. That embryo had a due date. I had a timeframe sketched out already for when I would start looking at daycare options.
The specific grief of a miscarriage is different but still very real. In order to cope with my grief, I needed to mourn. The ancient rabbis likely believed that having a prescribed set of mourning rituals for a miscarriage may have been a burden, since families could experience multiple miscarriages.
Today, too, families may experience one or more miscarriages. While miscarriage rates may or may not have changed since rabbinic times, many things have changed: birth control has led to less pregnancies; at-home pregnancy tests help women find out that they are pregnant much earlier than even several decades ago; because of ultrasound technology, pregnancies feel much more “real” when a future parent sees an embryo or a flickering heartbeat at a fairly early stage. All of this leads to pregnant people (and their partners, if applicable) who are more likely to experience grief when losing a pregnancy. The Perinatal Grief Scale was developed in 1988 to help clinicians diagnose and care for their patients’ grief. What if certain rituals of mourning were opportunities to grieve, instead of a potentially weighty obligation placed on the family? Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino, faculty at Harvard Business School, conducted experiments to measure the impact of mourning rituals. They determined that rituals are incredibly effective in reducing grief because they allow mourners to regain a sense of control, at a time when it feels like they have lost any semblance of control of their world. For me, rituals like burial and mikveh also helped me find a sense of validity in my grief. I needed concrete physical acts that also stemmed from Jewish tradition to help me recognize that my loss was real and mattered, both in my own eyes, and perhaps more importantly, in the eyes of Jewish tradition.
Rituals may be traditionally absent, but Jewish rituals, modified from other contexts, are emerging. Not everyone marks time and life cycle through Jewish liturgy and ritual, but I do. Each person will find what is meaningful for them in coping with a miscarriage. In the first few days, I felt compelled to have a way to externalize my pain. When an immediate relative dies, the mourner tears their clothes or wears a kriyah ribbon. I chose to let my nail polish chip away naturally over the coming weeks instead of taking it off my fingernails once it started to chip. I looked unkempt and that felt appropriate. People should know that something was awry. I whispered kaddish once while tears streamed down my face – it felt both rebellious and cathartic. I realized that I needed a burial of sorts, echoing how we address a loved one who has died. With the help of Sinai Memorial Chapel, I arranged to bury my embryo, unmarked, near newly planted trees in a cemetery. I chose not to be present for it, but it was comforting to know that it was returned to the earth. I also visited the site a few weeks later with a friend and buried a piece of paper on which I’d written my due date, and some other dates that would no longer be shared with this baby – I had envisioned a baby costume for this Purim, and had imagined that this Passover would be my first as a parent. None of this was halachically prescribed or encouraged but these acts helped me say goodbye. Some new Jewish rituals for mourning a miscarriage suggest planting a sapling. But for me, this didn’t seem fitting. A sapling would grow into a larger plant, but my baby-that-should-have-been was never going to grow. While I yearned to one day be able to grow a different pregnancy, that wasn’t what I wanted out of this ritual. I needed a ritual that was solely about loss before I could begin to think about new life again.
The cultural norm is to keep the pregnancy quiet through the first semester — but that’s not always helpful. Miscarriages are common, but it feels incredibly lonely.* The Jewish community has a superstitious relationship to the evil eye: if you tell others about your blessing (of pregnancy), the evil eye might overhear and change your luck. Soon after the first trimester, you start to show, and the secret is out, so the concern about the evil eye lessens a bit then. When I miscarried, only a small group of people knew about my pregnancy. How could my tight-knit Jewish community support me through this trauma when only a handful of people knew that I was pregnant? We have been trained to not publicly reveal pregnancies until we are past the first trimester, and yet that first trimester is when 75-80% of miscarriages occur. And they happen more than we realize. 20-30% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage, and the statistics only increase as women continue to have children into their late 30s, 40s, and beyond. One the one hand, the more people you tell about your pregnancy, the more people you feel like you need to ‘un-tell’ should you, God forbid, miscarry. On the other hand, those people are the ones who can hold you – feed you, check in on you, and let you fall apart with them. When I did tell people who didn’t know that I had been pregnant, I had to tell them three secrets at once: (a) I decided to try to become a parent (b) I had been elated that I got pregnant (c) I am now crushed because I had a miscarriage and now I need you to be gentle with me. Sharing pregnancy news – whether about a new pregnancy or a pregnancy loss – is an incredibly vulnerable act. Don’t be too afraid of letting people know before you cross the first-trimester finish line, if those people would not only celebrate with you but also support you through your fears or even a loss. Let’s change the stigma around revealing a pregnancy while it is still uncertain. The uncertainty doesn’t go away entirely until you hold a baby in your arms.
A miscarriage is related to, but not identical to, infertility. Trying to get pregnant again may feel intensely different than before. For weeks, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d done something to cause this, even though I was reassured again and again that running too much or taking a redeye or that sip of coffee would not cause me to miscarry. People told me that it was a good sign that I was able to get pregnant. While there might be medical truth to that, as much as I wanted reassurance that I would eventually, God willing, be able to carry a pregnancy to term, I need to mourn this particular loss – this particular baby-to-be that I carried and would never become a baby that I could hold in my arms. I went to the mikveh before I tried again, so that I could acknowledge that my body, which was supposed to create life, had in fact held a sort of death. I needed to immerse and wash that away in order to be ready for new life again.
A miscarriage is not (always) the same as being sick. My mental and spiritual health were compromised, but thankfully, in my particular situation, I was never worried about my physical well-being. This may not be true for other women, but I did not want to benschgomel (a call-and-response moment during an aliyah to the Torah, often said when you survive a potentially life-threatening experience) both because of this gratitude for my health throughout and because I was not sure that I wanted to acknowledge my miscarriage quite so publicly. I associate gomel with surviving in the face of fear, but I had not been afraid. Instead, I had been devastatingly sad.
When in shock and grief, decisions are exponentially harder. Prescribed rituals or other things to do or not to do can help you move through that. When an immediate family member dies, Jewish tradition prescribes very specific and concrete changes in order to grieve the life lost. I have been working on compiling resources for rabbinic colleagues to help their communities mourn miscarriages, perinatal losses, and neonatal deaths, but there isn’t a definitive set of do’s and don’ts. In the midst of what can be a deeply chaotic and heart-wrenching experience, rabbis can help by developing a concrete set of ways to mourn. Had I been steered toward taking several days to fully grieve in a way that parallels shiva, I believe that I would have healed more easily.
Grieving my pregnancy loss was incredibly challenging. And yet, a foundation in traditional Jewish mourning rituals eventually helped me find ways to adapt them that felt honest and appropriate for miscarriage. As I moved through each day, I also found myself experiencing deep, profound gratitude for the people in my life who showed up for me over and over again.
May we find ways to cushion the pain of pregnancy losses with community, ritual, and tradition.
When somebody dies in the Catholic tradition, people generally know what to do. There’s the saying of the Last Rites at a dying person’s bedside, the vigil for the deceased — also known as a wake — and, often, a formal Mass of Christian Burial.
In the Jewish tradition, there’s the practice of sitting shiva: the week-long mourning process during which the family of the deceased remains at home, and friends and relatives call on them to pay their respects.
In the Islamic tradition, the deceased’s body is ritually bathed and shrouded in white cloth before Muslims of the community gather to perform the Salat al-Janazah, the customary prayer for the dead.
But what happens when you die and you don’t follow any faith tradition?
When Iris Explosion — an entertainer and social worker who prefers to go by her stage name — was widowed unexpectedly at age 28, she and her friends had to create the memorial service for her husband, Jon, from scratch.
Explosion and her husband were not conventionally religious — she describes herself as a “lax Jew,” while her husband, a queer man interested in alchemy and other occult practices, often felt alienated from the born-again Christianity of his parents. The memorial service her friends created a few days after his death, she says, contained a blend of traditions and practices individual to Jon.
A Jewish friend recited the Mourners’ Kaddish. The group told stories — some reverential, some “bawdy” — that reflected all aspects of Jon’s personality. They played an orchestral rendition of the theme song to Legend of Zelda, Jon’s favorite video game. Friends from out of town dialed in on Skype to share their stores. Numerous friends gave Explosion rose quartz, a stone associated in some New Age and occult traditions with heart healing, as a gift.
The memorial service — as well as a second funeral service, which took place a few months later, and was similarly eclectic in style — focused on Jon’s personality and interests rather than being constrained by a specific set of traditions.
Explosion is just one person among the 24 percent of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated. For the religious “nones,” the issue of what happens when you die is an open question in more ways than one. According to a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, the most recent year for which data is available, 29 percent of Americans do not anticipate having a religious funeral, for whatever reason, and given the steady increase in religious “nones” over the past decade, that number will likely only rise.
But what do secular funerals — or death rituals more broadly — look like? What can they provide that religious death rituals can’t? What are the challenges involved in putting them together?
And as secular funerals become increasingly individualistic, tailored to the preferences and needs of the deceased, rather than a given religious or spiritual tradition, what does that mean for the sense of community engendered by ritual?
Secular funerals are part of a wider “unbundling” of religion
It started with weddings.
Scholar and psychologist Philip Zuckerman, author of Living the Secular Life, suggested in a telephone interview that secular funerals are just the latest iteration of the secularization of major life stages overall.
Its genesis, he said, lies in the proliferation of secular weddings in America. In 2017, just 22 percent of American weddings took place in houses of worship, a nearly 20-point drop from 2009, according to data from the wedding website the Knot.
“The first thing we saw was zillions of people going online and registering with the Universal Life Church,” said Zuckerman, referring to an organization that virtually automatically ordains people over the Internet, “so they can perform their own weddings for friends and family, so they can still make it sacred but not under the auspices of religion.”
Different states have different laws about the extent to which Universal Life ordinations are legally valid for performing weddings. Funerals, however, have no such restrictions.
Zuckerman posits that among the people he’s interviewed for his book research, the desire to have a secular funeral isn’t just about not wanting to affirm the existence of a God or an afterlife that the deceased may or may not believe in. Rather, he says, it’s also about wanting to preserve a sense of the deceased’s individuality.
“They just don’t want fairy tales. They don’t want to be told, ‘So-and-so’s in a better place now,’ or, ‘So-and-so is now suckling the bosom of Jesus’ — they can find that talk annoying,” Zuckerman said. “We want to curate our own Facebook page. Why wouldn’t we want to curate our own funeral?”
More and more, Zuckerman said, he sees people choosing their own music and their own speeches that they want to be read after they die. “I think that is part of our growing individual and less of this care of tradition … more and more people want to feel the idiosyncrasies of the dead person and the specialness of the dead person.”
This attitude, he said, is particularly prevalent in the United States. “We all like to think in the United States that we’re special. Why wouldn’t we want our funerals to be special too?”
Certainly, for Iris Explosion, commemorating Jon’s life in a way that felt true to his personality and character was a priority. From sharing Jon’s favorite Spotify playlists with his friends to curate the music selection for the services to working in references to My Little Pony — a show Jon loved — Explosion and the couple’s friends created a memorial for Jon that fit his character.
By contrast, Explosion said, she declined to attend other memorial services, like one hosted by Jon’s family in his home state, that had a more Christian focus, instead circulating an email to attendees of that service asking them to donate to Planned Parenthood, which she felt better reflected her husband’s values.
Explosion’s experience dovetails with a phenomenon called religious “unbundling.” A term coined by Harvard Divinity School researchers Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thomas, who have covered how phenomena like CrossFit and Soulcycle function similarly to religions for their participants, “unbundling” refers to the way both the religiously unaffiliated and the religious alike are increasingly willing to pick and choose elements of spiritual traditions.
Someone might, for example, be a committed Christian but also practice Buddhist meditation or yoga, or be an atheist but attend Jewish family holidays and read tarot cards. In a pluralist landscape, in which people are used to gathering information and ideas from multiple sources (not least through the internet), a more individualized approach to religion and life rituals is all but inevitable.
As a culture, we still haven’t figured out what secular death rituals should look like
Even for those of traditional faiths, death is a phenomenon that defies easy answers. But for the religiously unaffiliated, processing and dealing with death and its aftermath can be an especially loaded task.
Brad Wolfe is trying to help them do that.
Wolfe is the founder of the week-long Reimagine End of Life festival. The singer-songwriter and author was inspired to work in the end-of-life space after watching a close college friend’s struggle with terminal cancer. The festival, which takes place in New York and San Francisco, partners with community centers and artists to curate a 300-strong series of events — from talks to workshops to performances to museum displays — dealing with the subject of death.
“Death is often the central coalescing element around which many religions are formed,” Wolfe told me in a phone interview. “As we’ve become more secular in some communities … there’s an increasing hunger for that space … to come together and explore this topic.”
The New York festival, which took place around Halloween, featured a range of explorations: a class on how to write your own obituary, doctors talking about dealing with their patients’ deaths, live musical performances exploring themes of loss and bereavement.
What connects each event is a sense of intentionally: that people are actively setting aside time and space to deal with a weighty topic.
Both Wolfe and Zuckerman identify similar elements of what that “coming together” looks like. Ideally, both say, it involves elements of ritual, community gathering, and a sense of meaning: How do we conceptualize a person’s death as part of a bigger picture?
Wolfe suggested that we might be better off looking at this “coming together” not as a nonreligious event but as an expansion of the definition of what religion means. At least two Reimagine events are, fundamentally, immersive theater performances. In one, participants are invited into a phone booth to have conversations they wish they’d had with somebody who has died.
In another, participants role-play members of a fictional bereavement support group. Speaking about these events, Wolfe argued that the lines between art, ritual, religion, and performance are deeply blurred.
“The boundaries between art and religion are more porous when it becomes a practice explored with intention,” he said. What matters is the sense of significance shared by participants: “Having a practice, a shared system, allows us to connect in ways that give us a sense of comfort and something we know we can turn to.”
The idea or combining artistic creation and end-of-life ritual is far from new to Janie Rakow, president of the International End of Life Doula Association. As a “death doula,” Rakow works in hospices, helping those facing the end of their lives develop rituals and practices around their death. While she works with patients from a wide variety of religious backgrounds through the hospice, she tailors her work and approach to the individual in question.
One of the most important parts of the end-of-life process, she says, is the act of creation. She helps her patients develop what she calls “legacy projects”: individual artistic works, from a memory box to audio letters.
“Everyone has a legacy,” Rakow says. “So [I ask myself] what kind of legacy project could we possibly create with this person to really leave behind a sense of who they are or were?”
Next, she asks patients to help plan their own death — where they would like to be? What music they would like to be listening to?
“There may be some ritual work done around that,” she says, even if it’s “as simple as surrounding their bed, holding hands, saying a prayer or saying poetry, reading something to them, [or] lighting a candle.”
The point is to help dying people take an active, creative role in the story they leave behind.
Often, Rakow says, these rituals are tailored to individual passions. She gives the example of one man she worked with, who was dying from ALS, a degenerative neurological condition that prevented him from being able to move. With his wife, Rakow created a series of guided visualizations for the man, who loved hiking, “so we would bring him with his eyes closed on the most detailed and specific hike that we could from the very beginning to hiking all the way through.”
She’d walk him through ”smelling the forest and feeling himself walking up the hills and hearing the birds chirping and looking over at the crystal clear lake. And the more descriptive we could get, we were able to bring him back into his body that he wasn’t able to use through his mind.”
Secular rituals present their own set of challenges
One of the most difficult parts of creating secular death rituals is compensating for the lack of built-in community, or built-in structure, that often accompanies more established religious traditions.
Zuckerman pointed out that the secular bereaved don’t necessarily have a clear road map, or community support, to help them deal with the pragmatic aftermath of a death.
“One of the biggest problems for secular culture [is that] you have to cobble together and make it yourself. If you want your kid to have a bar mitzvah, it’s all taken care of. You want your kid to go through confirmation class in the Episcopal Church? Boom, they’re enrolled. If you want to do a secular version of that? Good luck. You’re on your own. You have to figure it out, explain it to people, rent the space, find people, figure out how to write up your own program. … It’s a lot of effort.”
The lack of intentional secular communities, Zuckerman said, only intensifies this problem. “With religious communities,” he said, “not only is the structure of the funeral in place, but there are going to be people who are going to immediately sign up to cook dinner for your family for a month and they’re going to deliver food to your doorstep and they’re going to help you get your kids to school and they’re going to do a lot for you. And when you’re secular, you don’t have those kinds of resources.”
For some secular Americans, the idea of having a “chosen family” — a close-knit network of friends — helps fill in the gap. Just as Friendsgiving has become a phenomenon among urban millennials, friendship networks more broadly have become an increasingly vital part of social cohesion, replacing both extended family structures and traditional organized religious communities.
That was certainly the case for Explosion. She cites her friends’ involvement in making the service possible at a time when she didn’t feel capable of planning herself. “I needed camaraderie and community,” she said, and I feel like I had it.”
At the same time, she says, she had less of a blueprint for how to cope with the next stages of grief after about six months.
“People go back to their own lives,” she said. “And it was hard to feel that sense of community. Without a church or synagogue to bind us together, it maybe felt like it dissipated. People missed their friend and their co-worker. But for me, it’s like, I miss my husband who lived with me, and it was hard to feel that sense of community after time had passed.”
The next step forward might be intentional secular communities
Explosion’s story points to a wider tension in the world of secular funerals and the creation of secular culture more broadly. On the one hand, the benefits of the “unbundled” religious landscape, for many secular Americans, lie in the opportunity to create truly new, individualistic rituals and experiences. We have the opportunity to curate our identities and public personae event after death, creating experiences that feel unique to us.
On the other hand, what risks getting lost in the process is precisely that feeling of collective identity that demands subsuming our individuality in a wider whole. Religious rituals and language, from Catholic ceremonial liturgy to the Salat al-Janazah, may not feel fully and uniquely “us,” but they nevertheless define and orient a wider community and give us a sense of shared values.
The 19th-century sociologist Émile Durkheim saw religion primarily as a shared construction of identity; in his seminal 1912 work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, he wrote, “The most barbarous and the most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social.”
As more and more Americans leave organized religion, the next question is whether, and how, many of them will gather together, and how an increasingly individualistic conception of identity can be reconciled with the real, human need for group belonging. As secular funerals and death rituals become the new standard, we may see some of these rituals become more group-centric.
For Explosion, for example, the process of grieving led her to an unexpected new ritual. During her husband’s life, she said, she often played a video game called Destiny with him, looking up the location of objects hidden in-game and giving him hints to find them. While she never particularly got into the game, she said, she enjoyed playing it with him. After his death, she started watching YouTube videos of people playing the game, or its sequel, to remember the time they’d shared. Then she decided to buy the game’s sequel to play it herself.
“I’ve been playing this game I wouldn’t have played if he hadn’t died. And it’s been meditative for me. Finding the little things, like doing these things we used to do, felt like a pilgrimage in a way,” she said.
Sometimes, Explosion communicates with other players in the game online. While she’s only told a few of them about her personal history with the game, she’s nevertheless found a community that can accompany her in a time of grief.
“When we do a big quest or a raid together, there’s always a moment for me of, you know, okay, he would have done this. He did this in the old game. Now it’s me kind of picking up this mantle.”
The secular funeral liturgies we see in the future may transition from being individualistic to being based on other nonreligious elements that bring a community together. They may involve the music of My Little Pony or the playing of video games.
Ultimately, they’ll represent two fundamental human needs. First, to make sense of a beloved’s death. And second — and just as importantly — to not do it alone.