Nearly thirty days ago my mother passed away, quietly in her sleep after a protracted illness, and I wanted to share some of my feelings and experiences, as a baal teshuvah keeping the Halachos interacting with a non-observant family.
An incident occurred at my mother’s funeral that I thought would be appropriate to discuss on Beyond Teshuvah. On my way to the U.S. to attend the funeral, my wife called while I was still in the airport in Israel and offered to call my brother, who lives in a different state than my parents, and recommend he pack an old shirt, in case he wanted to tear kyriah. “Okay,” I said, “why not tell him about it? At least he’ll have the choice.”
At some point after I arrived and we took care of the burial permit and other arrangements at the cemetery, I told my father and my other brother about the Jewish custom of kryiah, and the reasons behind it. I explained that we tear a garment to show that we believe the body is only a garment for the soul. We express our pain in this tangible way, but in a way that comforts us that only the exterior garment is lost; the soul lives on forever.
“Very well, but we aren’t going to do that,” they said. The next day, my brothers and my father prepared black ribbons to wear on their coat sleeves, and put on their best dress shirts. I am not the one to be pushy about religion, especially with my family. I was relieved that at least there was going to be a Chevrah Kadisha involved in the funeral.
That was a big concession by my brothers. When my brother was informed of my mother’s death, he immediately called the mortuary located in the local cemetery where my parents bought a plot twenty years ago. They arranged to send their workers out immediately. Then he called me, in Israel, and I suggested finding a Chevrah Kadisha in L.A. (over an hour’s drive away, without traffic).
I phoned the local Chabad Rabbi, probably the only Shomer Shabbos Jew in town, who I knew from previous trips home, and he got involved. My brother agreed to phone him, but told him that my Mom wanted a Reform ceremony, not an Orthodox one. “This has nothing to do with Reform or Orthodox,” the Rabbi said (I heard later), “this involves the difference between a traditional Jewish way of doing things, with a 2000 year history, or nothing.” My brother took the number of the Chevrah Kadisha, but only reached their beeper service.
Meanwhile, the workers from the local mortuary arrived. In what is to me an amazing display of the pinteleh Yid (the Jewish spark), my brother sent them away and waited for the Chevrah Kadisha to get back to him. He was in my parent’s home where my mother passed away; she was in hospice at home. The nurse was gone, and he was alone with her body. At this point, he told me, he was only doing this for me. He didn’t know what my mother would have wanted, and he didn’t believe it made any difference. The Chevrah Kadisha came a couple of hours later and relieved him of his uncomfortable, uneasy post.
Readers of Beyond BT understand the importance of the meaningful and respectful traditions of Jewish burial—the taharah, purification in a pool of water, tachrichim, burial shrouds, shomer, who watches over the body 24/7, and burial in a plain wooden coffin in the ground. However, my family had no familiarity with these concepts at all.
Afterwards, they extolled the praises of the Chevrah Kadisha Mortuary, who acted with great sensitivity, efficiency, and respect. They really went the extra mile (or 75 miles, at 2:00 am), and made a big kiddush Hashem.
My mother was in hospice; I expected what was going to happen. But still, I was totally unprepared. No one wants to consider these things. But it would be a good idea to have a plan for kosher Jewish burial, some information, like phone numbers and the like, and if possible and appropriate, to discuss the matter beforehand with our family members.
At the funeral, the Reform Rabbi who led the ceremony at my mother’s request, called on the husband and the sons to step forward to tear kyriah, which he went on to explain. I was surprised, but before I knew what was going on, everyone recited “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” responsively after the Rabbi (I mean everyone, even my brothers’ non-Jewish coworkers and friends of the family), and we all tore our shirts.
A few days later, I asked them why they decided to tear kyriah in the end? After all, they wore expensive shirts, and they had the black ribbons anyway. They said: “Rabbi L. (the Chabad Rabbi, who also spoke at the funeral) took us aside and spoke to us about the significance of kyriah. Then he said, ‘Really, it’s a question of what’s more important in the final analysis, a $25 shirt or your mother’s soul?’”
“Yeah, you know,” added my sister-in-law, “Jewish guilt!”
They didn’t seem upset in the least, and when Rabbi L. arranged for minyanim in my father’s home, they put on the shirts with the kryiah.
I have always been apprehensive about “religious coercion,” especially with family members. But if I didn’t get Rabbi L. involved, would my mother have had the Chevrah Kadisha? Probably not. Would my family have torn kyriah or said kaddish during shivah? Definitely not.
What are your thoughts and feelings about using Jewish guilt?
Originally Published Nov 28, 2006