University of Oxford

Why A Traditional Jewish Funeral

Weddings and funerals are two of the last communal activities in which friends and family members gather together to pay their respects.  Within the modern social setting, the majority of events that were once significant social concerns have been replaced or transformed. Events such as festivals or religious holidays have lost much of their luster, leaving fewer reasons for persons to join together and celebrate communal bonds.  The traditional Jewish funeral is arguably one of the last forums in which it is expected that the participants will give themselves wholly over to the memory of the departed loved one and the reaffirmation of those who remain alive on earth.

     In the Jewish custom, the rites involved in the processes of mourning are a part of paying respect to the dead, and therefore it is necessary to adhere to these (Lamm 13).  The use of ritual can be used to further unite the mourners in a shared sense of purpose.  The respect given to the body under halachah (rabbinical law) helps to provide guidelines that can bring the mourners together and help to show honor towards and emotional commitment to the departed (Zemer 61).  For example, there are strong proscriptions against cremation in the Jewish tradition, as cremation is considered to be a desecration of the body; mutilation of any type following death is perceived as a violation of the rights of the deceased.  Similar objections have been raised towards autopsies and other after-death processes that affect a body (Lamm 38).  There are also canonical objections in the Scripture to cremation as a means of preparing the body, as burning has traditionally been used as a means of punishment or shame for those whom deserved this type of treatment following death (e.g., prisoners, witches, etc.).  In the modern era, it is no longer sensible to believe that cremation is dishonorable, and especially senseless to see the process of cremation as purposefully disposing of a witch.  The decision to cremate a body, however, is nevertheless a violation of tradition, and it is probable that cremation will insult or horrify some of the persons attending the funeral.  As the service is designed to unite the assembled friends and family, it is recommended that cremation be avoided to help promote unity and avoid conflict and strife among the assembled mourners.  The funeral is, after all, a place in which emotions are likely to run high regardless of the method of burial, and it would be inappropriate to use a method that would inflame negative responses.

     The disposal of the body through burial is also an example of socially and ecologically-responsible techniques.  In Jewish tradition, rituals have been developed through which the body is interred or buried within a comparatively short amount of time.  There is no wake, and the body is watched at all times from the point of death to the point of burial.  Sitting with the body takes its origins from a time in which a body could be scavenged by vermin, which would not only have been disrespectful to the deceased but also could increase the risk for plague or contamination among those handling the corpse.  The rite of immediate burial with minimum accompanying frills is also derived from this tradition, and in the modern setting it is likely to incorporate a lack of embalming fluid or any other form of preservative.  Yet, conversely, the practice of entombing a body in a simple wooden casket is also socially conscious, where the body can decompose as quickly as possible and free up the existing burial grounds for other deceased persons.  These practices should be openly welcomed by persons in the modern era, as these demonstrate strong commitment to the health and well-being of the living while also paying respect to the dead.  Indeed, as modern burial practices are increasingly chemically-dependent, a response to this has been for ecologically-minded persons to request burials devoid of chemicals and are in simple wooden coffins (Chamberlain and Pearson 113).  It is quite possible that these processes will increase the popularity of the traditional Jewish funeral, even among non-Jews.

     The use of the grave site or the internment station is also a fundamental part of the Jewish burial.  These stations are semi-permanent, in that they will fade over the centuries, but these do provide an exceptional illusion of permanency for the mourners.  When burial or internment occurs over multiple generations, the location in which this occurs takes on a greater purpose for the family.  The descendents are able to approach this location and recognize that their ancestors were tied to the land, as this patch of earth holds sentimental significance even if the bodies themselves are gone.  As time passes, each body that is added to a family plot or cemetery site indicates that the family continues to establish itself, and its legacy is not only preserved in death but also in the successive generations that are able to visit this location.

     Reliance on Jewish tradition during a funeral also has one very important outcome: The immediate family does not have to make decisions concerning the treatment and the burial of their loved one’s body.  In a scenario where the ritualistic processes of death and burial are affirmed through millennia of practice, this helps the mourners concentrate on their loss as opposed to decisions concerning coffins, between the options of cremation or burial, or even when and where the memorial service will be held.  A highly structured service that lasts from the time of death until sitting shiva has been completed seven days later helps to provide a sense of purpose and emotional completion for the family, without distracting them through frivolous concerns.

Works Cited

Chamberlain, Andrew T. & Pearson, Michael P. Earthly Remains: The History and Science of Preserved Human Bodies.  New York: Oxford University Press, USA.  2002.

Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning.  New York: Jonathan David Publishers. 2000.

Zemer, Moshe.  Evolving Halakhah: A Progressive Approach to Traditional Jewish Law.  New York: Jewish Lights Publishing.  2003.

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