a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

The Jewish Funeral and other things I learned in Conversion Class tonight

Posted on: November 17, 2010

If you haven’t gathered, the first trimester of my conversion class was all about the Jewish Life Cycles.  We learned about birth, baby naming, brit, bar/bat mitzvah ( I missed that day but just so you know you become a bar/bat mitzvah, you don’t have one), wedding, and today-Death.  Dum-dum.  Not only is it the end of the life cycle it marks the end (almost) of my first trimester of class.

I was quite centered and awe-inspired in the way that Jews deal with death.  I’ve read about Death and Mourning in various books that I own on Judaism.  Many of the books centering around conversion talk about Death and Mourning in great length for simple logistical reasons.  What to do if your Christian parent dies, I’m a Jew, my parents are not will they sit shiva for me-things of that sort.  Today we really got down to the actual rituals surrounding dying and mourning and like so many things I’m learning the Dying and Mourning process is less about God and more about the family.

I’ve always known what my dying wishes will be.  My parents know, my sister knows, and Mirs knows.  When I die I want to be cremated, I don’t want a funeral, and I don’t want crying.  Instead, I want a party in my honor and I want those in attendance to enjoy my life, to remember me, not to mourn me.  Today I realized that I may have to change my wishes.  The reason I opted for cremation rather than a funeral was because the cost of a funeral is ridiculous.  The idea of spending thousands of dollars for an ornate box that goes into the ground is like throwing wads of money down the toilet.  Cremation seemed the most cost effective way to lift the financial burden of my death.  The reason I didn’t want a funeral is because I’ve never been to a funeral I enjoyed.  The process of a showing, the funeral service, and the burial is time-consuming and drags on for days.   As I wrote in one of my short stories, The Front Porch, I never saw a good-looking corpse.  Lastly, I wanted a party so that I could be remembered in a positive way, a way that brought tears of joy rather than tears of sadness.

Apparently, Judaism fits the bill.  According to Jewish law when a person dies the body must never be left alone.  The body is washed by people whose specific mitzvah is to wash the bodies of the dead.  The body is then dressed in a kitl, burial shroud, and perhaps a tallit.  They are placed in a pine box and returned to the earth, ideally a day after they have passed away.  Autopsies are not to be performed and the body is not to be embalmed.  Kaddish is prayed and the soul leaves the body.  The entire family and those present at the gravesite are to do the physical work of shoveling the dirt onto the pine box, burying it completely and then the focus shifts from the deceased to the mourning family who sits shiva for 7 days.  For those 7 days they are not to bathe or shave, they are to be served by guests and mirrors are to be covered.  On the last day, they are to rise and go into a period of mourning for 30 days.  For 11 months Kaddish is prayed and every year on the anniversary of the death a Yahrzeit candle is lit.

Sound gloomier than what I want, right?  But it reminded me of something my sister once told me about my funeral idea.  The purpose isn’t for me, really.  I am gone, after all.  The funeral is about the people left behind.  Judaism feels the same way.  When a person dies utmost care and honor is bestowed upon them.  The greatest mitzvah any person can do is to attend the dead.  The quick burial allows focus to go onto the family.  We sit shiva for 7 days to give us time to mourn the loss.  We end the period of mourning after 30 days to remember that we are alive.

The fact is that we all die.  Whether we are rich or poor doesn’t matter to our soul.  Being buried in a pine box that will have turned into dust with our remains becoming dust as well reminds us that we’re all the same.  Being buried in the kitl we wear on Yom Kippur reminds us that before God we’re all the same.  Giving to the family, attending their needs allows us to not only remember the spirit of the person but to be thankful and blessed to be alive.

The Kaddish is as follows:

May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.
May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one, Blessed is he- above and beyond any blessings and hymns, Praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen

It never mentions death because we must always recognize the greatness, glory, and awesomeness of God.  Like life, death is out of our hands.  The only thing in control, Judaism teaches us, is to live a good life.

2 Responses to "The Jewish Funeral and other things I learned in Conversion Class tonight"

It’s imperative to me that I be buried in a way that I can return to the earth. Jewish burial ritual allows this for me. It’s something that I appreciate. I believe in Israel many people don’t get any sort of box but here in the US, that is going to be frowned upon in most cemeteries. Of course now they have green cemeteries but they aren’t Jewish and you may still need a box.

Right? It’s such a great ritual, like so many Jewish rituals. I love how they just make sense.

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