Conflicting Emotions

On Sunday afternoon, I stood on a hillside in a cemetery as my great aunt’s coffin was lowered into the earth. At 93 years-old, she was the last of her siblings to pass away and thereby close a chapter in our family’s history.

I have such conflicting emotions about the events on Sunday because I was very close to my great aunt who was an exemplar of kindness and hakaras hatov. She was a person who was a source of encouragement to others because she was continually happy and only spoke about the good points of others.

I think, however, that my conflicting emotions about Sunday stem from the fact that I cannot simply go to a funeral without becoming extremely agitated with the unconventional way funerals are handled in my family. Five years ago, one of my great-aunt’s older brothers passed away, was cremated, and his ashes were scatted in a Jewish cemetery on the graves of his parents and brother and sister. I was so incensed about this idea at the time and felt helpless because I had absolutely no say in what happened. This pain was coupled with the knowledge that my own grandfather had been cremated as well.

With these experiences in my past, I walked into the Jewish funeral home on Sunday to be greeted with a funeral featuring an open casket. To make things worse, there was a half-hour before the service began and family members and friends gathered around the open casket cried, hugged, and even engaged in idle chit chat. I was horrified at the sight of people standing with their backs to an open casket and laughing with their friends. I wanted to scream at the lack of respect these people were displaying. But, I remained silent. Who was I, only a grand-nephew, to make a scene in front my great-aunt’s children and grand-children while she lay in the room before us? In reality, what could I have done?

At the cemetery, I helped carry her coffin. My great aunt’s son was across from me on the other side and began to ask me about my family; making me uncomfortable as we carried his mother to her final resting place. Once again, this sacred moment was shattered by small talk.

I threw a shovel full of earth on my great-aunt’s coffin, as is tradition, and went over to give words of comfort to her son. I told him that not only is his mother now together with his father, but that I also remembered that there were other family members buried in this cemetery. I told him that that now she is also together with her parents and her brothers and sister; that she has left one family and has returned to another. He responded, “They are also buried here?” When I explained that they are buried at another cemetery, he quickly added, “Oh, you mean together in a metaphysical way.”

I drove home with this comment echoing in my mind since I perceived that he used the word “metaphysical” in place of “make believe” or “hocus pocus”. I lamented the fact that in today’s society that many people have lost the ability to take the concept of a neshoma returning to its source in a literal manner. I reflected on how many sacred moments that I have witnessed in recent months that were marred by unthinking people; a bris in which people stood taking pictures with their camera phones over the mohel’s shoulders; a wedding where members of the wedding party complained about being hungry and continually inquired when they would get to eat; and now this, sons standing with their backs to their mother’s body while they laughed and engaged in small talk.

I have no more words. Perhaps I do not belong on this planet any more.

This article was first posted on A Simple Jew’s site.

18 comments on “Conflicting Emotions

  1. >>I should clarify, I understand those things logically (just as I could understand that if one has no beliefs, a bris could be considered “barbaric”) but the Jewish feeling (neshoma?) in me can’t understand it. >>

    The Jewish feeling in me understands it very well. Hey! Maybe it’s just your feeling for you and my feeling for me? The Jewish TEACHING you’ve had makes it difficult to understand, that’s all.

  2. If some people’s mental image of the normative shiva environment resembles an Irish wake, maybe we need a video showing a dramatization of the real Jewish way, “by the numbers”, with narration. Likewise for funerals and other life cycle events where many participants have never encountered the real thing.

  3. The following article written by Rabbi Aron Moss in Australia touches on this topic in this weeks email that he sends out.

    Question of the Week:

    My grandmother recently announced that she intends to be cremated. This disturbed me, as I know Judaism doesn’t allow cremations. She grew up in communist Russia and doesn’t believe in anything spiritual. She says there’s no difference between burial and cremation, the result is the same. What should I tell her?


    I recently spoke to someone who attended a friend’s cremation. I was struck by her reaction to the funeral. She said that the atmosphere could only be described as awkward. Here was a group of people coming to pay their respects to a loved one. At the front of the room stood an urn. Try as she might, she was unable to make the association between her friend and the urn. There was no sense that honour was being paid to the departed – her presence was no longer felt.

    Being cremated is unfair to the mourners. They cannot be expected to say farewell to an urn. They have no gravesite to visit. The soul has no resting place in this world. If your grandmother is willing to forgo the spiritual benefits that a Jewish burial gives her, at least she should consider the comfort a Jewish burial will give her family.

    And as for the claim that the result will be the same whether she is buried or cremated, it is not true.

    When cremated, the body becomes ash. When buried, the body returns to dust, and becomes one with the soil. There is a big difference between the two. Soil is fertile, ash is not. The soil allows new growth and further life. Ash is barren and lifeless.

    Turning the body to ash is unnatural. But the gradual process of returning to the soil is true to the inner meaning of death. The passing of one generation allows the sprouting of another, and the living are nourished and inspired by the legacy of the dead. Our forebears are the soil from which we sprout. Even in their death, they are a source of life.

    I have never met a family who regretted giving their loved one a proper Jewish burial. But I have seen the regret and pain caused by a misinformed decision to cremate. Think long and hard before making such an irreversible choice.

    Your grandmother is a special lady. May she see many more years of good health, and may she always be treated with the dignity that she deserves.

    Good Shabbos,
    Rabbi Moss

  4. I have been in this situation. When my Aunt passed away (my mother’s twin) at the “shiva call” people were asking my mother, who was in avelius, for food and coffee. My grandmother, the mother of the deceased, was busy in the kitchen helping get food and drink for the “comforters”

    To say you do not belong on this planet is nonsense. This is G-D’s planet, and G-D created the world for the TORAH and the Jews. THE TORAH…that is there needs to be people here who observe Torah properly.

    I suggest next time, out of respect, simply decline from actually taking part in anything, even if halachically allowed. After all, there is no halacha that says YOU MUST PARTICIPATE. Trust me, as disgusted as you’ll be at the end of the day, as I was, when I laid my Aunt to rest, at least you are doing it from more of a distance.

    If you have this attitude that you dont belong, then we might as well give our serious kavod and stand when the “Rabbis” of today, Reform Conversative, Reconstruction, enter the room…Because that is what they wanted all along…TO BREAK US

  5. This theme follows through in the shiva period. If the non-observant visitors are uncomfortable with mortality, they will often create a party like environment where the conversation is designed to MINIMIZE talk about the deceased in an effort to distract the mourner from his/her distress. Our tradition to keep the topic ON the deceased if possible, talking about their virtues, accomplishments and legacies, shows exceptional insight into the healing process.
    (It is also taught that we should allow the mourner to direct the topic of conversation) Also, it is popular among non-observant Jews to cut down the number of days shiva is observed, but again, there is great chachma in the required 7 days which allows the mourner time to work through the initial grief (and to honor the deceased by not returning to everyday life quickly after the death).

  6. “For the life of me, I can’t understand how a Jew would want to be cremated.”

    My mother (she should live and be well) is claustrophobic, and she finds the idea of both burial and cremation stifling. She wants to be BURNED ON AN OPEN PYRE when the time comes, which I just hope is illegal in the States. I’m not pressing the issue. It’s not like there aren’t enought things to argue about. When she reaches 120, I will give her a traditional burial, because I don’t believe the dead feel claustrophobic.

  7. Anonagirl

    I should clarify, I understand those things logically (just as I could understand that if one has no beliefs, a bris could be considered “barbaric”) but the Jewish feeling (neshoma?) in me can’t understand it.

  8. One Sunday morning last summer, my wife and I were driving up to Oak Park MI to pick up our younger son who had finished the Detroit segment of his short bein hazemanim vacation.

    On the way, he called us by cell phone to tell us that a rabbi, the father of my wife’s best friend there, had passed away (after a long illness and years of tender loving care from family members). Early that afternoon, we three drove to Oak Park’s Chesed Shel Emes funeral home. What an absolute Kiddush HaShem this whole levaya was from beginning to end! Even on short notice on a summer vacation Sunday, hundreds of people turned out, all with exactly the right somber attitude. The hespedim all hit exactly the right note. We felt as purified as one can feel after a funeral. This was not the only such funeral we have attended there; they were all like that. So, even in these confused times, things can be done the right way. The key is awareness and proper role models.

  9. Jews can want to be cremated for many reasons. These are personal and obviously extra-halacha (outside of halacha). Here are two examples:

    One of my uncles wanted to be cremated because he wanted his ashes scattered in the Atlantic Ocean, “so maybe some of them will make it back to the home of my ancestors.” He was a proud war veteran and a history teacher, and full of awe over the great efforts his parents and other Jews had made to leave the shtetl and come to America, thereby allowing him to become a war veteran and a history teacher. But he wanted to go “home” to Poland, and that was not possible in his lifetime. BTW when my aunt complied with his request, his relatives shunned her and never talked to her again. She lived for 20 years after his death.

    My mother also expressed a wish to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in her beloved local mountains, near the camp where she’d worked when she first moved to California. She used to say that that was when her life really began, because her growing-up years were harsh in many ways, and she did not feel like a full person until she moved to California and away from her mother. And yes, we did it. I knew it was “wrong” but I was not in any place to interfere. And the tongue-lashing we got from the hospital rabbi for wanting to honor my mother’s wishes, as we waited for her to die, did not help. When he said, “She won’t even know that you didn’t do as she asked you,” my father chased him out of the room. It was very traumatic.

    My husband and I both plan to have traditional Jewish funerals and burials, when the time comes.

  10. When my wife’s grandmother passed away, the family hired a “rent-a-Rabbi” for a graveside service only; he came in a Porsche. When family members asked if they could say something graveside, he said “it wouldn’t be appropriate” when they pushed the issue he said “OK but make it quick, I have to be somewhere” My wife and I were very saddened by this.

    Having said this though, I have been to many services that were respectful and appropriate. Sometimes people make small talk when they are uncomfortable or upset, I wouldn’t be too hard on them. But I think as a whole, there has definitley been an erosion of respect for the dead and the living in our times. I do think the frum world does treat some of this better though. (Maybe not the food in the wedding part)

    PS For the life of me, I can’t understand how a Jew would want to be cremated.

  11. A very dear uncle of mine passed away. Believe it or not, his wife, who is very hostile to Torah, arranged for his burial at a non-denominational local veterans’ ceremony with a ceremony that a former colleague of my uncle at a college where he taught and an interdemoninational minister ( not Jewish) presided. The night before, I called the chapel and was told that there had been taharah, tachrichin, shmirah arranged. I also called the local RY with whom my uncle attended classes. On the morning of the funeral, we all drove up. Somehow, the RY arrived and gave a brief but wonderful hesped that broke all of the tension.

  12. When my grandmother was nifteres, her husband (my grandfaher) did not want to do a tahara but thankfully he didn’t want a creamtion either. I spent the night in the funeral home were they were preparing the body. The folks that did the preparation were non-Jewish young men. They were playing loud rock music and crakcing jokes. I just respectfully asked them to turn off the music for a little while until they were finished with my grandmother’s body. They were accomadating.

    When a BT has to go through this type of thing, they should try to keep in mind that although we try to give the diceased the utmost kavod, the bizayon is a kapara.

  13. Simple Jew most definitely belongs on this planet, as we need people like you to help wake up the sleeping neshamas.

    What Simple experienced was a totally assimilated Jewish family going through the motions of of our society’s version of death & mourning.

    And they are not to blame. They assimilated for all the reasons we are familiar with, through the 20th century. The actual funeral home fiasco was EXACTLY what one sees at most non-Jewish funerals, on TV and in the movies.
    I’ve been to quite a few Catholic wakes in my life, and that is EXACTLY what transpires.

    Obviously, Simple’s relatives utilized only what they knew, which includes making small talk while carrying a coffin, as our society is deathly afraid of becoming introspective. G-d forbid there is that awkward minute of silence.
    G-d forbid one start thinking about things like “what happens to us after we die?”.

    While Simple’s relative did everything completely wrong, it is up to people like us to be there for when they have questions. Perhaps younger family members (probably the ones with lip rings & tattoos) saw through the charade of what what supposed to be a holy time. These are the ones we need to be there for. They are intelligent, seeking and see right through facades.

    Sadly, those 40 and over (like me) are extremely difficult to reach. They have been completely brainwashed by the popular culture & American Christianized secular society. My secular Jewish friends suspect that I had a nervous breakdown and am completely nuts now that I am Shommer Shabbos and eat strictly glatt. Seriously. The looks I get from old acquaintances are priceless.

    The fate of secular Jews’ souls is in Hashem’s hands. If they ask, embrace their questions enthusiastically. If they don’t, it’s not up to us. We believe in Gilgul, so it’s not the end of the line for them anyway.

    Concentrate on the young. They are the future of Torah Judaism. Did you know that according to the JPS (Jewish Population Study) of 2000, that 27% of Jews under 18, are being raised in Orthodox homes.

    The future looks bright. The past is the past. If Moshiach tarries, let’s use the mistakes that were made to learn from those mistakes.

    May Hashem guide you & keep you from strength to strength!

  14. Early in my adolescence my grandfather passed away. As my family were not Jewish, there was an open coffin and an endless parade of people peeking in to “pay their last respects.” I can’t say I felt anything about this entire experience, except to keep my distance from the dead body!

    The highlight of the two day ordeal was when my grandmother’s “Daughters of …” came trooping through, each sticking their faces into the coffin and staring at my deceased grandfather’s face. The closest he had let any of them near him his entire life. My uncles, his sons, sat next to me. One elbowed the other. “If that’s really our father, he’d get up and walk out of here, dead or not!” They both thought it pretty funny.

    Today, some forty odd years later I also think it was funny. Respectful? No, but it did capture the essence of my grumpy old grandfather … I just thank HaShem that I was blessed to raise a Torah observant family, and I know my children and grandchildren will experience a very different ‘right of passage’ when I die.

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