Thursday, November 1, 2012

Life at a Jewish Funeral

A few weeks ago, I began a series of sessions on "Life in the Rabbinate" for my avreichim here in the Beit Midrash. In our sessions, we talk about practical issues that come up in the pulpit rabbinate; I generally present anecdotes and issues which came up in my shul years, and we talk about how to handle particular situations.

Our opening topic was "Chevra Kadisha and Funerals", and we had a lot to discuss; we've had two sessions and we're not done. Among the questions we have looked at already:

How do you help a chevra kadisha to codify their policies and customs?

Do we really put a body on the floor if someone dies in the hospital?

Would we perform a taharah before a cremation?

What's a taharah certificate?

What comes up when transporting a body across state or federal lines?

Who may see the body, and when?

What is a kosher casket?

How many eulogies, and who speaks?

Is it really okay to say, "Today is Rosh Chodesh and we don't give eulogies, but I just want to say" and then go on to present a eulogy?

How do you eulogize someone you have never met? Or should you decline?

How can you help a family get ready for a funeral?

What equipment should a rabbi always have at the ready?

Who is in charge at the cemetery – Rabbi? Funeral Director? Head of the Chevra Kadisha? Cemetery Employees?

Are we allowed to have cement liners in graves?

Who carries the casket?

And there is a lot more waiting for the third session…


  1. It may be worthwhile for the rabbi to clarify policy regarding who can shovel graveside so low level functionaries aren't deciding disempowerment policies. I've been graveside when "able bodied men" only were invited to shovel the dirt. Who knows if that was the policy of the chevra kaddisha or the rabbi not in attendance.

    So too when the funeral home insists on separate seating at the service when that may not be the rabbi's ruling. So too women speaking.

    1. Melech-
      Shoveling - My impression is that this may come from specific rabbis, but I don't know. Why not ask the rabbis involved?

      Separate seating at the service - While I never insisted on it in my shuls, it is worth noting that this is specifically mentioned in Succah 51b-52a.

    2. So how do we reconcile that aggadic passage with facts on the ground that many in fact do not insist on separate seating at funeral services?

      My secondary question is what separate seating at a funeral service, at a chuppah, or at shiur, accomplishes in the absence of a mechitzah. After all, if we are going to extrapolate from that gemara, then any time we separate genders, we do so with a mechitzah, since that's the passage we rely on for the concept of mechitzah (there not being any other mention of a mechitzah for like a thousand years till the Mordechai).

    3. Re: Your first question - I'm not clear why this requires reconciliation. It is a passage of gemara that talks about what a good Jew should do, but it is not recorded in shulchan aruch. Therefore, those who think the gemara has something to say about what good Jews should do will take it seriously. Those who think the gemara's counsel is not appropriate for their lives will do otherwise.

      Regarding your second question: Why does the use of a mechitzah for certain separations mandate use of a mechitzah for all separations?

    4. When "able bodied men" were asked at funerals I attended, I believe it was in the context of not having some out of shape older person going at it and chas veshalom get a heart attack! I've seen some really heavy people really working hard at it, turning red, and I worried about them.

      But the question does remain if "able bodied men" specifically was meant to exclude women. Is there any issue of women doing a few shovels full? Or is it not tniusdik?

    5. From a discussion one of the mourners had with the chevra kaddisha functionary later, it was apparent he meant to discourage women from shoveling, but he admitted he wouldn't have physically stopped anyone. Great. Like that's such a tovah.

      As for what the issue is, I have no idea. Maybe somebody else can explain why the closure that men find meaningful should not be available to women.

  2. One of the most awkward issues that arises is delicately enforcing separation of genders at shiva house davening where there are people from many different backgrounds and expectations.

    1. Does a shiva house need a mechitzah for davening?

    2. Sandy-
      Very true.

      As I understand it, there is no need for a mechitzah outside of a shul setting, if men and women occupy separate areas and the men will not see things they should not see while davening.

    3. R. Henkin in Bnei Banim 1:4

  3. Rabbeinu, did you record somehow your proceedings? These are topics of real interest out here; and I'd be curious to know how you've addressed some of those questions.

    1. R' Mordechai-
      I'm honoured to be asked, but sorry, I don't record these discussions. I need to be able to talk about actual events, and I don't know how people would feel about having their stories told - even without names - in public.