Rabbi Henry Berkowitz has given the following opinion on two questions which are likely to come up in every congregation and at any time.
"You ask my opinion on the proposition now under consideration by your congregation, viz.: To permit burials from the Temple at the request of the surviving members of the family, barring suicides.
In order to make my reply as clear and concise as possible, permit me to answer the two parts of this proposition separately.
First: Shall burials from the Temple be held simply at the request of the surviving members of the family, or shall the congregation, through its rabbi and officials, decide the matter?
At present, as you state, the latter condition prevails. When the congregation desires it for any reason, funerals are held from the synagogue--always, of course, with the consent of the family. I believe it should be a reciprocal rule, namely: when the family desires it, the privilege should be accorded--always, of course, with the consent of the congregation. In such cases the President or Board shall determine the practical questions (e.g., time, expense, etc.), and the rabbi shall determine the religious questions (e.g., the nature of the service and the eligibility--as, for instance in the case of a Christian wife of an Israelite, in the case of a suicide, and the like).
As burial is a religious service as much as public worship or marriage, the use of the synagogue cannot be inappropriate. As the family may have the Temple for marriage solemnities by complying with the conditions which the rabbi and the congregation require, so in the case of funerals should they have the same right, subject to the proper conditions.
Inasmuch as funerals from the Temple have been limited everywhere hitherto to such persons of special merit or distinction as the congregation desired to honor, it would no doubt be deemed a token of arrogance and a presumption of and yearning for the vanities of ostentation, for a family to make such a request. Nevertheless--you will agree with me, I believe--in recognizing that if the old Jewish sentiment in favor of equality and the leveling of all distinctions of death were carried out by having all funerals from the Temple, great, very great, good might be accomplished. The narrow, crowded quarters of private houses are rarely adequate for the decorous conduct of the services. The crowded conditions are often a menace to health and create such a state of discord and indelicacy as to harrow up the feelings of the suffering in a dangerous way and undo all the possibilities of that reverence which is essential to a religious service. Every minister has keenly felt this and should certainly welcome such a common sense innovation. Temple Emanuel, New York, adopted such a law many years ago as was imperatively demanded by the impossibility of holding funerals respectably in the flats and narrow houses of that crowded city.
Second: As to the burial of suicides from the Temple or the prohibition thereof.
We now know about mental diseases and the inducing causes of suicide more than was ever known before. As a consequence, we have more compassion in our hearts for the victim than was held in the days of old. While sometimes--and perhaps most times--the act is execrable and cowardly, and amounts to the denial of religion, we know that it is not always so. The old Jewish law recognized the nobility of suicide in some cases, e.g., that of martyr. Shall not the new Jewish law of congregational usage be as humane?
True, deception may be practiced, and the glamour of concealment may be thrown over an ignoble suicide by the publicity of the funeral. There is, therefore, a danger of condoning such dishonesty in permitting Temple burial. On the other hand, an irremediable wrong would be done if, by the enforcement of such a sweeping prohibition, one worthy person were ever branded and the family unjustly disgraced. I should say: Do not legislate on the subject of suicides at all. Let each case stand on its individual merits. Do not prejudge. We had a case here in Philadelphia of a woman whose eulogy will be pronounced by future ages. She discovered that the mute could be taught to speak and to understand all speech without hearing. In her effort to establish her system she threatened the old systems. She was harassed and persecuted, ridiculed and abused. The frail woman could not endure it and ended her life. Her death was the triumph of her system. Should she, whose life was so full of honor, be desecrated at death?
Trusting that these replies may be of some service to you and hoping that you will inform me of the final action of your congregation."
(Signed) Henry Berkowitz
To this I would add that, according to Jewish law, one is considered a suicide only when there is absolute certainty that he premeditated and committed the act with a clear mind not troubled by some great fear or worry which might have beset him for the moment and caused him to lose his mind temporarily. In the absence of such certain evidence, he is given the benefit of the doubt: we assume that some intense grief, fear, or worry caused him to lose his mental equilibrium, and that he committed the act in a state of mind when he could not realize what he was doing. Furthermore, consideration for his surviving relatives should, according to the Rabbis, not be ignored. And, whenever possible, we should try to spare them the disgrace which would come to them by having their relative declared a suicide.
(See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 345.1-3, and responsa Chatam Sofer, Yoreh De-a 326.)
(Opinion confirmed by Jacob Z. Lauterbach and Committee)
S.B. Freehof, "Funerals from the Temple," Reform Responsa for Our Time, pp. 95ff.