Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Funerals in the Synagogue: Difficult but Appropriate

Here we go again, back to the death topic. Sorry, but it comes up a lot, just like death itself.

I dislike the idea of hosting a funeral in shul, whether in the sanctuary where we daven or in the social hall. (There are halachic grounds to oppose hosting certain funerals in a shul, but that's not the topic of this post.) And yet, we do it, and we will continue to do it.

Basically, this is the problem: It converts the space of personal and communal conversation with Gd into a space of personal and communal despair. I don’t want to see that funeral, I don't want to remember crying my way through that eulogy, when I walk into shul next Shabbos.

We don’t engage in comedy in a davening area, because we don’t want to convert the shul into a space for joking around and קלות ראש.

We don’t hold board meetings in a davening area, because we don’t want convert the shul into a space for conversing about daily matters.

And so we really should not hold funerals in a davening area, because afterward, when we will enter the shul, we will remember the grief of that loss.

But, on the other hand, there are real reasons to hold a funeral in shul, and Jews have done it for millenia.

First, attending a funeral is one of our most sacred mitzvot. It’s a time to honor righteousness, a time to cry for what we have lost, a time to express our belief in surviving death. It expresses our beautiful if, at times, agonizing faith in Gd and eternity.

Second, funerals express our commitment to kindness and respect. The Sefer Chasidim writes that we rise before a passing funeral bier not only to honor the deceased, but to honor those who are engaged in this mitzvah of taking care of the deceased.

And third, there are reasons to hold specific funerals in a shul. Today, for example, we will bury an 89 year old man who came to minyan every day, morning and evening, until the very last day of his life; how could we not bring him back to the place where he was last conscious, and honor him within the walls of the minyan he upheld? How could we offer דברי הספד (eulogy) in any other building?

So, as in many areas of life, we end up doing what we are reluctant to do. We hold the occasional funeral here in the social hall of the shul, and we honor our righteous role models.

And, yes, sometimes I stand in conversation at kiddush and my mind flashes back to what I least wish to remember on a Shabbos morning. But I suppose if that’s the price of honoring a נפטר (deceased person) properly, then it’s a price we ought to pay.


  1. BDE

    I hope that, over time, you come to feel those memories less painfully. Death is part of life, and hopefully you will be able to remember his presence there in life, as well as his absence in death.

  2. The "advantage" of holding a funeral in shul is that it can also serve as a way to remind people of the strength and support of the community.

    So while I can see how you might be concerned with remembering the sorrow, it might also serve as a positive memory as well.

  3. Tzipporah-
    Thank you.

    Certainly true.

  4. i hope you get to celebrate a lot of semachot in the shul

  5. Perhaps it depends on who the funeral is for. If it is for a man like the one you mentioned, a pillar of the minyan who lived to שיבה טובה - a ripe old age, and died peacefully (I hope), it is a different situation entirely from a person who was taken before his time, violently or by disease, לא עלינו.

    The former case seems more appropriate for the shul setting, as you will continue to feel the man's absence every morning anyway, when he does not show up for minyan. An early or very difficult death would be remembered differently and might not be appropriate for shul for the reasons you stated.

    Then again, when a family loses someone, the last thing they might want is to mark the person's passing in a strange alienating place surrounded by unknown people, as would happen in a funeral home.