Religious rituals surround death

Headstones at Catholic Cemetery No. 1 in Victoria.

By Jennifer Lee Preyss

[I]nside Memory Gardens, a well-groomed cemetery off Cuero Highway, marked graves and floral arrangements pay tribute to the lives of thousands of Victorians who have died.

Near the rear of the grounds, 50 plots have been reserved for members of the Victoria Islamic Center.

Even though many Islamic communities throughout the United States bury members in Islamic-only cemeteries, Victoria Islamic Center Imam Osama Hassan said the 50 plots in Memory Gardens fit the needs of the community.

“It has worked out perfect for us. It’s the right size for our needs for the future,” he said, mentioning the small size of its congregation.

Like many other religious sects in South Texas, including Christianity and Judaism, Islam has its own unique rituals for burying the dead.

Often, Islamic communities purchase their own cemeteries, especially if they are part of large communities of Muslims or live in larger cities. But death is an important part of life and how a Muslim is honored in death is especially important for believers.

“The Prophet Mohammed tells us to talk about death because it’s a part of life. But many people are afraid to. Some people feel if they talk about it, it’s like bad luck, like someone they know may die,” he said. mentioning the cultural aspect of international Muslims from various countries around the world who are reluctant to discuss or plan for death. “We should be talking more about it.”

Islamic members are not the only community in Victoria with special requirements for death.

In downtown Victoria, off Vine Street, a Jewish cemetery dating back to the mid-1800s indicates some of the city’s earliest residents were Jewish, including the first Jew to settle in Victoria, Abraham Levi, who established one of the city’s earliest grocery stores on Main Street.

Catholic and early Protestant cemeteries also remain pervasive throughout the region, established in the early 1800s as settlers moved in and established churches and parishes.

The Rev. Max Landman, of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Hallettsville, said Catholic funerals are distinct, in part because of their reverence for the dead.

“The main thing, with respect to a Catholic funeral, is we’re there to pray for the soul of the dead person. A lot of times, it can be seen as a celebration of the person’s life – and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the person’s life – but the point of the funeral from the Catholic’s perspective is to commend that soul to God,” Landman said. “We firmly believe that our prayers for that person, especially the Sacrifice of the Mass are helpful in obtaining mercy and speeding that person’s soul into paradise.”

As Halloween approaches, a time of year that gives a not-so-subtle nod to death, cemeteries and afterlife, the season offers a unique opportunity to examine the customs of area religions as they honor the members of their congregations in the religious context they acknowledge.

Here are a few of the many death traditions of Catholics, Muslim and Jewish believers around the world.

In most religions, tombstones and grave markers are permitted and visited by the living.

When a Muslim dies, the body should be buried as soon as possible. Three to four hours is preferable, up to one day, but no longer than 48 hours. The bodies are not embalmed, and careful consideration is given to treatment of the body because Muslims believe the person can still hear and feel pain.

Autopsies and cremations are not acceptable for this reason; however, organ donation may be permitted in some circumstances because it is seen as a charitable event.

Instead, Muslims are washed with soap and water and wrapped in a white cloth. Men prepare male deceased, while women prepare female deceased.

It is preferable that Muslims not be placed in a casket at all, allowing the dead to return immediately to the dirt.

Overseas, Muslims are buried directly in the ground. In the U.S., caskets are required, so Muslims typically place the coffin upside down to encapsulate the body once it is placed in the ground. Bodies must lie on their side and point toward Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The typical mourning period is three days, and believers are encouraged to return to normal life. This varies depending on each person, with some wearing black for many years in remembrance of a loved one.

Priests are called both right before and after death to pray the appropriate rites over the body.

Vigils are usually held on the evening before Mass, and there is often a praying of the rosary. This is typically the place where eulogies and tributes are delivered.

Caskets can be covered with white linens, or palls, and blessed with holy water as a reminder of baptism.

Bodies are allowed to be embalmed, however organ donation and cremation remain areas of disagreement among Catholics. It is preferred if cremation is being performed that the body not be cremated until after the funeral Mass, so the deceased can be present in the church for the service.

At burial, the Rite of Committal is given at the blessed burial site. The Lord’s Prayer is typically said upon closing.

When a Jew dies, the “Dayan HaEmet” prayer is recited, which acknowledges God as the true judge.

Jewish tradition prefers the body be laid to rest as soon as possible, as soon as one day, so funeral planning often begins immediately.

It is also preferable the body not be unattended and is often given a “shomer” or guardian.

If funerals cannot be held right away, exceptions can be made. Sometimes, the body is refrigerated while waiting on the funeral.

Bodies are typically washed and dressed. Men wash men and women wash women. The washing is called the “taharah.” The submerging of the body in water for the ritual bath is the “mikvah.”

The body is fully dried and dressed in a simple white cloth called a “tachrichim.” Men are typically buried in a “kippah” or skull cap, and also a “tallit” or prayer shawl.

Jews tend to avoid holding funerals on holy days or Saturdays.

Organ donation is generally accepted and seen as a good deed. Autopsies and embalming are generally not accepted unless required by law.

Cremation may be accepted depending on the degree of orthodoxy of the Jewish family. Orthodox Jews do not permit cremation, while conservative and reformed Jews may allow it.

Jews are placed in a simple pine casket without any metal, and sometimes holes are drilled in the bottom of the box to accelerate decomposition. There is generally no wake or visitation in the Jewish faith. Funerals are held in the synagogue, at the grave or funeral home, and include a eulogy, reading of the psalms, and the memorial prayer, “El Maleh Rachamim.”

It is customary for the tombstone or grave marker to be put up one year after the death. A stone is usually placed on the grave within the first 30 days to indicate someone has visited.

Complete Article HERE!

What Judaism Teaches Us About Grief And Loss


By Gila Silverman

[T]he headline on a recent Forward interview with Sheryl Sandberg asks if Sandberg can help Americans learn to grieve. Sandberg has certainly done all of us a great service by opening up a conversation about the way American do –- and don’t –- deal with death, dying and grief. In the essay that follows this headline, both Sandberg and Jane Eisner, who interviewed her, acknowledge that the rituals and structures of Jewish mourning can play an important role in processing our grief. As Jews, we are lucky. We do not need to create new ways of grieving; we need to look no further than our own traditions in order to learn how to grieve.

While the fact that everyone will die is universal, how we understand and respond to death is shaped by historical, cultural, political, economic, and, of course, religious, forces. Shared norms, values, and practices guide our expectations of how the bereaved should behave, of how we relate to the loss, of the responsibilities of the community, and of the social identities of the dead. As American Jews, therefore, the way we think about death is influenced both by our Jewish heritage and by the larger American culture.

In the United States today, death is primarily understood through the language and concepts of medicine, which focus on treatment, recovery and cure. Death is often perceived as a failure of the medical system, and talking about it makes many uncomfortable. Grief too is frequently seen as an individual and medical problem. Bereavement is a crisis to be resolved, and normal grieving behaviors are sometimes interpreted as symptoms of a psychiatric condition. For much of the 20th century, our understanding of grief built primarily on the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, and the work of grief was seen as letting go of the deceased, in order to free emotional energy for new relationships. Mourners were often told to “put the past behind”, “get back to normal”, and “move on”.

In the latter half of the 20th century, and into the 21st, new psychological models of grief emerged, primarily from researchers in North America and Western Europe whose methodologies allowed them to actively listen to the voices of the bereaved. My mother, Phyllis Rolfe Silverman, who died last June, was one of these scholars. In nearly 50 years of research in this field, she helped us to understand that bereavement is a time of change, a normal and expected life-cycle transition. Rather than something to recover from, mourning is a process of accommodation; it is not a linear process through a fixed set of stages, but a helix-like movement of negotiating a series of crises and accommodations. Mourning is an ongoing process of renegotiating a relationship, a “continuing bond”, with someone who is no longer physically present, and of reconstructing a meaningful world, and our place in it, following a loss. This is a process not of relinquishing an attachment or of giving up the past, but of changing our relationship to it. Grief is a life-long process, as the relationship to the deceased, and the meaning of the loss, is continually revisited and renegotiated as life events occur.

My mother always told us that Jews do grief well, that our Jewish traditions map perfectly onto the psychological experience of mourning. As I near the first anniversary of her death, and the end of my Jewish year of mourning, I understand now how right she was. Traditional Jewish laws prescribe a fixed set of mourning rituals and prohibitions, which are collectively referred to as Avelut (Hebrew for “mourning”) These rituals are designed to balance two core commandments: k’vod hamet –- honoring the deceased, and nichum avelim -– comforting the mourners. They make clear what is permitted and forbidden to the mourner during each phase of their grief, and outline for the community its responsibilities in caring for the dying, the dead, and the mourners. They recognize that what we need during the early days of intense pain and sadness is different than what comes later, as we accommodate to the empty space the death has left in our lives. Jewish rituals recognize that the individual is intertwined with the community, that, as the famous 1952 ethnography by Zborowski and Herzog declared, “life is with people”.

Our guidelines for mourning delineate who is considered a mourner (the parents, children, siblings, and spouse of the deceased), and the exact obligations and prohibitions guiding the behavior of each over time. These guidelines follow a clear progression, beginning at the moment of death, and continuing through the completion of the Avelut period, which is 30 days for a spouse, sibling or child, and one year for a parent. This is a highly structured process; as the mourners move from Aninut (entry into mourning) to Shiva (the first week), and then to Shloshim (the first thirty days) and eventually reach the end of Shanah (a year), they separate from, and then slowly return to, the social life of the community. Even after this year ends, those who have experienced a loss continue to participate in additional memorial rituals (yahrzeit, and, in the Ashkenazi tradition, yizkor) for the entirety of their lifetimes. At the heart of Jewish mourning rituals is recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. The kaddish, a prayer sanctifying God, is to be recited daily for the Avelut period, and must be said in the presence of a quorum of ten Jews.

Within a larger social context that still expects people to move on from their grieving fairly quickly, the year of Jewish mourning rituals, and the ongoing opportunities to remember the deceased, send the bereaved a strikingly different message. Our rituals recognize that ongoing mourning is accepted, expected and supported by communal norms, rather than being a reason to seek professional help. Jewish mourning rituals encourage the bereaved to temporarily withdraw from normal functioning, gradually accept the reality of the loss, mobilize social support, and find new meaning within the existing frameworks that guide their lives. In particular, the daily recitation of kaddish, and the annual marking of the yahrzeit, serve as a recognition that the memories of the dead will always be with us. These rituals acknowledge that death ends a life, but not a relationship.

By so publicly speaking of, and writing about, her grief, Sheryl Sandberg has powerfully reminded us that we need to acknowledge, make room for, and talk openly about grief. But it is not her job to teach us how to grieve. We have the wisdom of our Jewish traditions to do that.

Complete Article HERE!

Where Do I Go To Mourn?

Ariele Mortkowitz

[T]he Jewish tradition is rich with mourning rituals. We’ve done it as a nation for millennia; mourning the loss of Jerusalem, lamenting the Holocaust, remembering the long lost days of the Holy Temple. As individuals, we do it with bagels and covered mirrors and week-long shiva visits. We can say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) for a year. There is plenty of space and opportunity to grieve.

And it’s a good thing. A great thing even. It’s supportive. It’s community showing up at times when someone might be at their lowest low. It’s not leaving people to manage their grief alone. It’s a built-in system of shoulders to cry on, arms to lean on, caretakers, yentas – all of them creating a space for you to mourn and pause before gathering strength to move forward.

But while we offer so much to mourn those who have passed, there is nothing available to support those mourning pregnancy loss. There are no rituals. No one brings bagels. No one even talks about it. Some rabbis will tell you that you are not even permitted to say Kaddish after a stillbirth. It’s like it never happened.

And there’s a logical reason for that. In times long ago, pregnancy loss was incredibly common. It was also often very public. It was rare to find a family that had not lost a child or infant in the course of their family-building. In fact, many parents lost more than one in their lifetimes. So if the custom would have been to stop everything to mourn, people would have been in states of mourning constantly. And one could say that therapeutic value of shiva/mourning rituals would be diluted. The rabbis, in their wisdom, thought it better to not make such a big deal of pregnancy loss – precisely because it was so common.

But what about today? 2017. When pregnancy loss is not something that happens as often in each family? And certainly not in the same public way it did in olden times? What do we do with these feelings of loss that can be so devastating – particularly in the midst of communities that value children so highly?

Where should a couple take their grief when they learn that they will not be able to be parents? How should a mother-to-be mourn the loss of a life that she cherished? What prayer should she say? There is no ritual. No one talks about it openly because of the attached shame and disappointment of not being a “fruit bearer.”

It’s rough. It’s lonely. And it is incredibly sad.

It is ironic that a faith community that is normally so very good at supporting individuals laden with grief, can fail so terribly at addressing this common and natural loss.

I know of more than a few synagogue regulars who stopped attending services and recuse themselves from the ebb and flow of Jewish communal life after a miscarriage or when they continue to fail to conceive. With no “official” way to mourn a pregnancy loss or a fertility struggle, it can be incredibly isolating and “othering” for couples — often pushing people away from their communities during the very time they need support most. They feel not understood, invalidated, wrong for being so heartbroken. The absence of ritual or commemoration of pregnancy loss sends a message loud and clear: “Your loss is not a real loss. It is not worthy of the community’s attention or caring.”


So we wanted to do something about that. We wanted these important community members to feel held and supported and we wanted to validate their loss and let them know that they are not alone in their grief.

This month, we participated in Yesh Tikva/The Red Stone’s “Infertility Awareness Shabbat” in an unusual way. Our goal was to create a space for empathy and understanding about infertility in the very tight-knit, family-focused Jewish community. But, rather than ask our clergy to talk about infertility or pregnancy loss in a sermon as has been traditional, we decided to do something new.

On the Sabbath before Passover, the Agam Center at Ohev Sholom invited the entire community to “Light A Candle For Your Loss.” We circulated an anonymous form and asked our community members to indicate the number of memorial candles they would like illuminated on their behalf and gave them the option to have their candles dedicated or labeled in the manner of their choosing.

The response from the community was overwhelming. We lit forty-seven candles, submitted anonymously by thirty individuals – just from our 300 family congregation alone. We displayed these candles publicly, at the entrance to our sanctuary, in our light-filled atrium. Every community member passed by the memorial display on their way into services, and our clergy, Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, invited the community to pay their respects and honor the (often silent) loss felt deeply among our grieving community members.

The responses from the community came pouring in.

“Thank you for doing this. Don’t really have words right now. Just gratitude to have the opportunity to mark my little boy’s birth, especially so close to the actual date.”

“This is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for giving a voice to so many who are on this journey. All my love and support for your amazing, very necessary work.”

“I thought I’d fill out the form because it was a lovely idea – and then found myself in tears, making a small space for something I mostly push aside. Kudos to you for creating the holy opportunity. Really proud to be a part of this community.”

As far as I know, our decision to publicly anonymously recognize pregnancy loss in the synagogue community is a unique endeavor to validate this loss and create a space for a life-experience that can be so isolating and stigmatized and reframe it as an opportunity for communal support.

As we filed into the sanctuary for Saturday morning services, we stopped to read the inscriptions and dedications next to the memorial candles. They took my breath away. Here is but a sample of what was shared:

“I would have loved to love you.”

“Eternally grateful for the journey you were a part of, as painful as it has been. Your loss made way for those we watch grow, shaping me into a mother who strives for daily patience and gratitude.”

“Mothers Day 2011. You were and then you weren’t. Still wonder why I wasn’t supposed to be your mommy.”

“For the family I thought we’d have and the empty seat at our table that I wish we had filled.”

The Agam Center is working hard to make people feel seen and understand that their community is indeed there for them during their time of sorrow or struggle. We want to help people in the midst of a fertility journey see that they are truly not alone, and that there have been so many others – even right in their very synagogue community – who have walked this path with them. We are creating a space to mourn something that is usually so privately painful – particularly in a tradition that is, ironically, so “good” at supporting mourners in other circumstances. I am hopeful that we can begin to highlight ways that communities can create spaces for these losses and families unrealized.

Rather than staying home and feeling isolated, these mourning couples made a point to come to synagogue that week and watched as others learned about and began to appreciate the magnitude of the loss they were feeling. They came inside from standing on the fringe of the community and felt embraced and found solidarity, all without a word. This heartbreakingly beautiful display was our community’s way to show that all loss is real loss and to remind those still struggling that they are not alone in their grief of hopes for the family of their prayers.

May our communities know no more suffering. Amen.

Complete Article HERE!

How funeral traditions differ across Abrahamic religions

Funeral practices are deeply integrated in culture, reflecting beliefs and values around death. Offering an index of religion, funeral traditions in Abrahamic religions bear quite different stages as well as certain similarities


An Islamic funeral in Pakistan


[H]aving become a subject of philosophy, psychology, sociology as much as it has of anthropology and theology, mortality has always been a matter of interest throughout history as well in the present day. There is even a scientific field named “thanatology,” the science of death.

The anthropology of death brings us the very different funerary customs that have been in practice throughout history.

To start with a common example, ancient Egyptians used to embalm the deceased and built giant pyramids to house the embalmed bodies of their kings and pharaohs. Other interesting burial traditions include those of the ancient Greeks, recorded in anthropological records or literary works like those in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”

As far as can be understood from historical accounts telling about the funeral of Attila the Hun, ancient Turks used to show their grief by hurting themselves. Before the 6th century, Turks were burning the deceased with their belongings and horses, and keeping the ashes to bury in autumn or spring. Certain Chinese and Arabic accounts report that it was the Kirghiz people who were the first Turks to burn the body. However, it was after this century that Turks began to bury their deceased.

In Iran, dead bodies used to be buried before the arrival of Mazdaism (Zoroastrianism). Fire, soil, air and the water are considered as sacred in Mazdaism and the body must not pollute any of these four elements. There was no burning or burying but the deceased used to be abandoned outside. The same tradition was visible among the Sasanians, as they used to abandon the dead outside and bury the separated bones and flesh in a special containers called “Ossuarium” later on. Today modern Mazdaists bury their deceased. “Burial customs always have been an index of religion,” American scholar Richard Nelson Frye says.

According to Abrahamic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the appropriate way is to bury the deceased. It is believed that Cain (Qabil), the eldest son of Adam killed his brother Abel (Habil) and committed the first crime of murder. It was the first death on the earth and the first burial. It is still observed that Muslim and Jewish communities bury deceased people as a funerary custom following the order of the Quran and Torah. Cremation and embalming are strictly forbidden by Islam and Judaism. In both religions, burials take place as quickly as possible to honor the dead. Jews never hold a funeral on “Shabbat,” while there is no similar restriction in Islam.

Muslims and Jews prepare the body for burial by washing the body with warm water from head to feet. Jews call this process “Tahara.” Muslims apply “ghusl,” or the ritual of ablution. While washing, the body can be turned from one side to another to entirely clean it but it is never placed face down. In Islam and Judaism, the body is dressed in white burial shrouds and put in a simple wooden casket. Men prepare men and women prepare women.

In Islam, a person who is about to die is expected to say the “Shahada,” or the testimony of faith, which translates to, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” His family or close friends should encourage him to say it because it is regarded as one of the first pillars of Islam.

When the person dies, those present close the deceased’s eyes and cover the body with a clean sheet. Someone is expected to read the Quran. As soon as the “ghusl” and shrouding are done, the deceased’s coffin is taken to the mosque for the funeral prayer “Salat al-Janazah,” which is a communal duty among Muslims.

The deceased person is put in front of the imam and the community behind him faces to the “qibla,” the direction of Mecca, in the courtyard of the mosque. When the prayer ends, the casket should be transported to the cemetery for burial. The body should be placed in the grave on its right side, facing the qibla. A layer of wood is placed over the corpse and then the soil is filled. Following the burial service, the family of the deceased accepts visitors at home.

On the other hand, Jewish funerals take place at synagogues. A Jew who is a Cohen, a descendant of the priestly class, does not join the burial unless the deceased is a close relative since he is forbidden to come near the corpse. A Cohen is commanded to be in state of purity and avoid ritual defilement by a corpse which is ritually unclean.

Women wear conservative apparel and men wear jackets in dark color. The service is held by the rabbi and begins by cutting a black ribbon to symbolize the person’s leaving loved ones.

After the funeral service, people go to the cemetery where men carry the casket. With prayers, the deceased is put in the grave with the casket. Mourners tear their garments as an expression of grief, which is called “keriah.” They keep on doing it during the first mourning process called “shiva” which lasts seven days. In “shiva” mourners keep the traditions such as covering mirrors and lighting candles. People visit the home of bereaved. There the “kaddish” prayer is recited.

Once a Catholic dies, the priest visits the home with a cross and a vessel of holy water to sprinkle over the deceased’s body. There is no washing or bathing but embalming is acceptable. It is also an appropriate way for the viewing and wake and vigil, which is a period of spending time with deceased before the funeral service at home or a funeral home. Relatives and friends of the deceased come, praying and sharing the grief of the immediate family. This is the most appropriate time to eulogize as the “Requiem Mass” (Catholic Church service) does not permit eulogies.

During the wake, the body is put on display in a casket. When the casket is brought to the church, the priest leads the funeral mass. Holy water is sprinkled and there is an opening song and prayer, and a sermon takes place from the Bible and a psalm. When the mass is completed the coffin is taken to the graveyard for the rite of committal.

For Eastern Orthodox Christians, there are differences in the funeral service compared to Catholics. When an Orthodox is about to die, the priest should be there to hear the final confession and administer the “Holy Communion” to the person. The first step is preparing the body that includes washing and clothing. When the body is bathed and dressed, the priest sprinkles the holy water on the four sides of the casket before the body is placed inside. The priest reads the first “Panikhida” (a prayer service). The wake lasts three days and during this, the “Psalter” (The book of Psalms) is read out loud by family and friends.

After this, the body is brought to a church in a form of procession led by the cross. There the coffin is opened and a bowl of “Koliva” (a dish of boiled wheat with honey) is placed with a candle on top, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life and the sweetness of heaven. A cross is placed in the deceased’s hand. Lit candles are distributed to those present in the funeral. The priest leads the “Divine Liturgy,” and recites “Memory Eternal.” Although saying goodbye differs in every society, from the preparation of the deceased to the disposal, the arrangements and funeral services in between actually show us all these funerary customs are important as much as for the bereaved of the deceased. The importance given to funerals is universal for honoring the deceased and consoling and sharing the pain of loss as well at the end of the day.

Complete Article HERE!

Things not to say to mourners (and some things you can do instead)

by Esther D. Kustanowitz


When friends announce on Facebook that a loved one needs prayers, or is in the hospital, or that they’re going through a hard time, I get a sinking feeling. And while recovery sometimes happens, sometimes, it doesn’t. So when I read, “I am heartbroken to announce …,” my heart breaks, and the pain of my own loss reawakens, in sympathy for the end of a life and for what is to follow for those still with us — a year mourning the loss through text, ritual and the communal embrace that is vital, but stands in contrast with grief’s frequent companion: a stark and searing sense of solitude.

Death is part of the organic fabric of life, our liturgy tells us, arriving sometimes in a timely manner and sometimes in a shocking and unexpected instant years or decades too soon. But regardless of the individual circumstances surrounding a loss, family members and friends are left to mourn and to try to move through the grief to live their lives in a new normal.

Jewish rituals provide a year of structure for rudderless mourners, with customs that encourage communal engagement while acknowledging that the year is one in which the mourner is set apart from and different than the embracing community. While this state traditionally lasts a prescribed year, in emotional reality, it tends to linger. Five years after my mother’s death, when people check in on me, I’m grateful; Judaism says that I have been done with mourning for the span of a college education, but that doesn’t mean I’m back to the me I was before. It doesn’t mean that my mother’s absence from the world doesn’t affect me anymore. It’s just different.

I remember those first few months, and how many people, hoping to utter words of comfort, instead spewed forth words of frustration, anger, pain and even insensitivity. They were probably as appalled as I was, but I know — and I hope they know that I know — that their hearts were in the right place. I believe they were so concerned about saying the wrong thing that they often said something even less appropriate.

Each mourner is different. Each grief circumstance is different. Each person finds comfort differently, in different gestures and phrases. But here are seven things — in honor of the traditional seven days of shivah — that everyone should try to avoid saying, along with a few things you can do or say instead to express your love and concern for someone who is experiencing a loss.

Avoid awkward moments engaging the mourner, conversationally or physically. There’s a tradition to leave the conversational initiative entirely to the bereaved, to wait until he or she wants to speak. Some mourners crave the physical embrace of community, while others prefer a spiritual support and company, but not literal embraces (especially from virtual strangers). While challenging to all of us who love words and fear silence, or who are more inclined toward long and crushing hugs to convey what’s in our hearts, sitting quietly in a room next to someone who is grieving can send a powerful, wordless message of presence and support (even if you don’t touch).

“Read” the mourner and be mindful of your relationship with him or her. Are you a close friend, whose embrace the mourner may be expecting, or are you an acquaintance who hugs as an alternative to conversation? If you’re concerned about the potential awkwardness of your physical or verbal interaction, ask the rabbi or a relative what kind of support the mourner may want. You can also ask the mourners if they would like a hug, and don’t be offended if they say no — not everyone wants to be touched by everyone.

Avoid commentary about the illness or the last moments of the deceased. “At least your loved one’s suffering is over” falls into a category of things that people inside and outside the immediate family may think quietly, especially if the deceased has been through a long or public illness, but should not say. Similarly, “at least s/he didn’t suffer,” or “what a blessing that it happened so fast.” You are not the coroner, so don’t offer your opinion on the cause of death or its nature. Instead, sit quietly with the mourner for a while — if there’s an appropriate opening, gently ask the mourner to share their favorite memories or most memorable moments.

Avoid making comments about the afterlife. In some religious communities, it’s comforting to devout people to think about their loved one being “in a better place,” “taking his place at God’s side” or (as I’ve heard religious Christians say) “going to Jesus.” But, emotionally, most mourners do not find comfort in this concept (especially “God needed another angel”). Is there an afterlife? Heaven? Hell? Olam ha-ba, where you study Talmud all day? No one knows; there are too many theological and emotional potholes in grief’s road to cover over with religious speculation about the afterlife. Instead, focus on this life: “I hope the community is the right kind of supportive when you need it. And I’m always available to help you.” (More on this in the next paragraph.)

Avoid: “Is there anything I can do?” Think about the vastness of the word “anything,” and the one thing it cannot include: the return of the lost loved one. Also, offers to help are something mourners receive in abundance at funerals and at shivah, but as time goes on, the offers trickle down to nothing. A year in, people who haven’t been through a loss themselves may assume you’re “fine.” And while you probably will be functional to some degree, at least, you’re probably not “fine.” Instead, if you’re offering assistance, get specific — grocery shopping, picking up kids from school or activities, baby-sitting so that the mourner can have some personal time. Specific offers give the mourner a chance to say “yes” or “no, thanks,” but without challenging them to think deeply about what they need and what you can and cannot provide. And if you’re a friend who really wants to be supportive, offer assistance even after shivah, or during the year of mourning, or beyond, after the offers have faded away but the need for support remains.

Avoid judgmental commentary about the funeral, the shivah or about how the mourner is grieving. 

In many communities, there is variation in how people participate in mourning rituals. For instance, traditionally, shivah is held for seven days (shiv’ah means “seven” in Hebrew) for a close blood relative (parent, sibling or, God forbid, a child) or a spouse, and in a designated year of mourning, traditionally mourners abstain from “celebration.” But some (especially the non-Orthodox) are altering these traditions to fit their lives: sitting shivah for an aunt, uncle or grandparent, or only observing a few days of shivah. People want to connect to Jewish meaning and tradition, but not necessarily in a strictly Orthodox halachic framework. Saying things like “you’re not supposed to” or “not allowed to” grieve in a specific way is counter-supportive: The function of shivah, in particular, is to help the community gather around a mourner for support, not criticize the depth of their feelings or the minutiae of their approach to mourning. So don’t render a judgment as to whether it’s appropriate or halachic. Instead, if you’ve ever been on the inside of a year of mourning, you can offer, “If you ever want to know what helped me, I’m happy to share.” And if you haven’t been, just be there and listen.

Avoid over-empathizing with the mourner’s experience and emotional state. While this comes from a good place, saying, “I know exactly what you’re going through” minimizes the intensity of the mourner’s emotional state and shifts the conversation to being about you. For most mourners, especially at funerals and during shivah, this is not comforting; it’s a negation of their special status in that space. Occasionally, people double down on these kinds of statements, following up with an anecdote about a deceased pet or another “loss” story that isn’t equivalent — because no story of loss is ever really equivalent. Instead, saying, “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you,” or “I know it’s not the same, but I have some experience with loss if you ever want to talk,” is a better approach.

Avoid using shivah as an excuse to badmouth the community or its members. While this might seem a simple enough thing to avoid, the essential awkwardness that people feel when trying to comfort a community member may result in people blurting out things that are unintentionally hurtful. This may include criticizing the eulogies or the funeral service, or gossiping about the community’s failure to let everyone know the funeral was happening. Listen to the mourner. That’s why you’re there, to offer presence, an ear, and words of consolation when you have them. In most cases, that’s enough.

May we all know only simchas. But in the unfortunately inevitable event of a tragedy, let us focus our love and respect on the needs of those who are in the center of the grief circle, and may we as community members take seriously the sacred privilege of helping those who suffer to know that they are not alone.

Complete Article HERE!

How To Bury a War

As the last Holocaust survivor in our family was lowered into the ground, a generation was laid to rest.



How do you bury a war?

You start at the Tom Sawyer diner in New Jersey. You sit with a gaggle of relatives, all impacted by their parents and their fists and their fears and their grief. You order matzoh balls and you order cobb salads. No one asks for the bacon held. There are tuna melts and there is cream soda and everyone is American now. This is the beginning.

Once full, and after a funeral where Orthodox Jews and random strangers, where people look like they came, as your uncle will quip, “from central casting,” or Amish country, will gather, you won’t know who they all are.

An old man with a walker will slither across the stage and talk about the stock exchange, about the way the dead played numbers. She, the carrier of war. She, your great Aunt Rayya. She, the very last of the witnesses of the Poland that brought all of you into being. He will cry and glow and make it clear he fell in love with her and her great mathematical mind and you and everyone else will cry without understanding anything.

You will drive in a procession with cousins and aunts and parents and uncles. You will want to climb out of the car even though it is moving.  The graveyard will swallow you into its maze, your parents will play Russian roulette on gravesite discovery — using their “intuition” to find your grandfather’s grave and leading you back to the Paramus, New Jersey highway. No one, without Rayya, will have a compass anymore.

This day, this burial, this earth, this six feet under will mark the beginning and the end, the birth and the death, and you will stand there wondering why you can’t keep your diner food down as they lower her, and the war that shaped her, into the earth. You look at your father and wonder about how he is feeling. Free?  It’s over now, right? No more witnesses to the procession of relatives, no more evidence that they really came in with their bayonets, shuffled them all down a railroad track, and slaughtered everyone, almost everyone, that came before you.

It’s just that there is one way to bury a war and it involves generations and shovels. It involves saying no to the multi-ethnic burial crew with their bulldozers waiting nearby. It means no eating at the grave and gender separate prayer. It means a new order has not yet arrived. Burying the hole. Burying the gap. Burying a life, a woman, a stock market genius, a mystic, a mother. Burying a war involves generations and shovels.

One of your cousins, the circus performer, he is only 12. You will take him near you and note the length of his ponytail. You will whisper in his ear, shovel in hand, “Don’t worry, she left her body already. We aren’t really burying your grandmother.” The shovels are at work by now, in the hands of your bloodline, of their parents. They are passing shovels around.

As dirt thumps on cedar the circus-performing 12-year-old gets brave and grabs his shovel and joins the thud and the drop and the way the group has silently agreed not just to bury this woman but to bury the women and men she knew and that came before her. It is a silent agreement. You will collectively seal the tomb of an entire generation.

You take another cousin close to your chest. She will cry in your arms. You will have to hand your shovel to someone else.

“Did you know,” you will whisper in her ear, “that your grandmother’s family wasn’t ever buried?” You will want to tell her about piles of bodies, about a state-sanctioned memorial of piles of stones, of the way Poland tried to remember the dead with the names of towns or how ironically the Nazis were the only ones dignified enough to list the full names and addresses of their dead.

“This is for them,” you will say as she snots on your chest, as your stomach lurches, as you see your father as a parentless adult child with a shovel.

“This is a proper burial,” your cousin will whisper. “She would have liked this.”

Before you know it the grave is full. There is a mound on top. There is no more dirt to move. Before you know it, she is underground and her soul is no longer here and you are all the new generation with no elder witness. This is when you will oust the rabbi. This is when the gender norms will split. This is about when everyone wants more time at the diner.

“Over my dead body,” you will imagine her saying, about having men and women pray together. You will stand over her dead body and recite Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, alongside the aunts, all the uncles, the cousins, the strangers.

You will have to run. The bathroom will be your only friend and you will lose your entire diner lunch in one fell swoop. “You will wipe your face, the sweat on your brow.  “Sleep with me tonight?” You hear this as you crack open the stall door. Your cousin will want you in her mother’s bed, “I’m scared,” she says.

You will be sick again. You will slide into the backseat of your parent’s car and whisper, “drive.”  The war is buried now.  You can go home now.  Everyone is now for themselves, carrying what it left behind.  Everyone is now for themselves.

Complete Article HERE!

Physician-assisted dying: A Jewish community perspective

‘It may be impossible to achieve consensus on many of the issues surrounding physician-assisted dying’

By Shimon Koffler Fogel

"Surely we can all agree that every Canadian should have access to other means of alleviating suffering before contemplating a physician-assisted death," writes Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Toronto.
“Surely we can all agree that every Canadian should have access to other means of alleviating suffering before contemplating a physician-assisted death,” writes Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Toronto.

Physician-assisted dying remains a deeply personal and contentious issue among Jewish Canadians. Some in our community support physician-assisted dying, focusing on the plight of those stricken by a terminal or debilitating illness with no possibility of pain relief. Others oppose physician-assisted dying based on traditional religious grounds or due to concerns about a knock-on effect toward more broadly applied euthanasia.

The Supreme Court of Canada decision in Carter v. Canada recast this vigorous debate by determining that Canadians, under certain circumstances, will have a right to physician-assisted death. The remaining question is how this decision should be implemented.

While there is a vibrant diversity of opinion among Jewish Canadians on this subject, there are also points of unity that reflect common values within broader Canadian society.

Who’s eligible?

One such point of unity comes in the form of concern over the eligibility requirements for physician-assisted dying. Many who support physician-assisted dying base their position on situations of terminal illness or advanced stages of severely debilitating and painful diseases for which there is no relief or cure. However, the Supreme Court decision did not limit physician-assisted dying to such circumstances.

Parliament must now choose between two distinct approaches to physician-assisted dying. The first views physician-assisted dying strictly as an end-of-life option, a means for those who are nearing death to choose how and when to die. This is consistent across all North American jurisdictions where physician-assisted dying is permitted, including Quebec.

The second approach, predominant in European countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, does not restrict physician-assisted dying in this way. In these jurisdictions, children and individuals with psychiatric disorders or minor medical conditions can be eligible for a hastened death — considerations that played no part in the Supreme Court determination.

Quebec’s physician-assisted dying law, which was subject to significant, thoughtful deliberation and passed with strong, cross-party consensus, could be instructive for federal legislation in this context. In Quebec, a patient seeking physician-assisted dying must be competent and fully informed, at least 18 years of age, at the end of life, suffer from an incurable illness, be in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability and experience constant and unbearable suffering.

Concerns persist

Even so, significant concerns persist regarding the balance between the right to physician-assisted dying set out by the Supreme Court and the conscience rights of health-care practitioners, including physicians, pharmacists and nurses. Many have deep religious, moral and professional convictions that consider referring their patients to another, willing provider to be an unconscionable act.

Yet Parliament’s special joint committee on physician-assisted dying recommended that, at a minimum, health-care providers who object to physician-assisted dying for reasons of conscience should be required to provide a referral. This disregards the Supreme Court instruction that “the charter rights of patients and physicians will need to be reconciled in any legislative and regulatory response.”

Several viable options have been put forward to balance the seemingly competing rights of patients and health-care practitioners. For example, the Canadian Medical Association has proposed a “separate central information, counseling and referral service” to which objecting physicians would direct patients seeking physician-assisted death. Another possible accommodation would require an objecting physician to notify a designated administrator of their medical institution, who would then be responsible for transferring care in a timely manner.

Others have suggested a model where physicians would be required to report all requests for physician-assisted death to a government body that would have a registry of physicians to whom it could refer patients.

Pleasing all parties

Whatever the specific approach, with creativity and thoughtfulness, the rights of objecting physicians and patients can be harmonized. What’s more, such a process would likely facilitate improved access to physician-assisted dying for patients. The Canadian Medical Association estimates that 30 per cent of its members would be willing to provide physician-assisted death. However, it is unlikely that the remaining 70 per cent would know to whom they should refer a patient. A third-party agent would be well-suited to ensuring timely patient access while preventing the violation of physicians’ conscience rights.

Regardless, physician-assisted dying must not be the only, nor the default, end-of-life option available to patients. While respecting the division of jurisdictional responsibilities, the federal government should do its utmost to ensure that palliative care of the highest quality is universally accessible and that first-rate psychosocial supports are made available to all Canadians separately from physician-assisted dying. While it may be impossible to achieve consensus on many of the issues surrounding physician-assisted dying, surely we can all agree that every Canadian should have access to other means of alleviating suffering before contemplating a physician-assisted death.

Complete Article HERE!