American Reform Responsa

87. Omission of Commital Services

(Vol. LXXXVI, 1976, pp. 96-98)

QUESTION: A custom is originating in certain Western congregations to change the form of the traditional funeral service. There is no funeral service in home or chapel before the body of the dead is removed, either for interment or cremation. At the cemetery (in cases of burial), there is no service at all. On the day of burial, or sometimes a few days later, a memorial service is held. This memorial service is the only funeral ritual that is observed. Is this custom justified by tradition? Should it be encouraged?

ANSWER: It is not too surprising that such a custom can arise nowadays. There is in many quarters a desire to simplify the entire funeral ritual and to have less and less contact with the dead. The old tradition of the family sitting Shiv-a, seven days of mourning, and then following thirty days of half-mourning and, for a parent, a full year of partial mourning--all this is being increasingly set aside. Many now receive the consolation of their friends in the funeral parlor. This in itself is basically unobjectionable, except that in some families it supplants the Shiv-a entirely and leads to the entire neglect of the whole ritual of mourning.

This avoidance of any chapel or burial ritual at the time of death will easily lead to further avoidance. If the bereaved do not participate in any cemetery ritual at the time of the funeral, they will certainly not visit the grave in later times; and if such visitation is consolatory--as it must have been, for the custom is prevalent--then these bereaved are deprived of that consolation too. And as for the departed, the bitter lament of the Psalmist is fulfilled: "I am as forgotten as are the dead from the heart" (Psalm 31:13).

The new trend of avoiding contact with death and bereavement may or may not be harmful. It is, of course, for the psychologists to decide whether or not this constitutes a running away from an inescapable reality. After all, the Jewish ritual of mourning, even the completely Orthodox ritual, is meant to avoid exaggerated or unmeasured grief: "The law is to diminish mourning" (Mo-ed Katan 26b). On the next page in the Talmud it is stated that if a man mourns immoderately, God Himself rebukes him and says, "Are you more merciful than I am?" In fact, it is stated as a law in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 389.5, that when a man's friends rebuke him for excessive mourning, he should cease his mourning ritual. Thus, it is clear that our tradition has in mind a fixed and therefore limited ritual of mourning and the avoidance of excess. This certainly seems to be psychologically sound. The bereaved persons face the fact of death; do honor to the departed, as tradition requires; and when the ritual is finished, the mourner--having thus expressed himself--can now be consoled and go on with the business of living. It is a question, therefore, for psychologists to decide whether a bereaved person who avoids all ritual of mourning does not suppress his own grief thereby and actually delays his consolation.

As far as tradition is concerned, the present laws and customs are the result of an evolution of various observances. Originally there was a special ritual at the very moment of death. The law was that whoever was present when a person died had to make a tear in his garment (Keri-a). This was changed because it was feared that the people present at the bedside of a dying person (especially if they were not relatives) would want to save tearing their garments and would therefore go away and leave the dead to die in loneliness. So, for that reason the Keri-a was shifted either to the grave side or to the funeral service. Thus, the various prayers ("Blessed be the righteous Judge..." etc.) which were originally said at the moment of death in the presence of the man just deceased were, likewise, moved to the funeral service or the grave side.

Just as these rituals (i.e., tearing the garments and the prayers) were always to be in the presence of the dead (first at the moment of death and later at the service) so, too, the eulogy is to be in the presence of the dead (see Yoreh De-a 344.12 and 17).

So definite was the tradition of having the various rituals in the presence of the dead that even in the case of sinful people the ritual was carried out. Basically the law (stemming from Semachot) was that wicked people--those who abandoned the community and those who committed suicide--were to be given no ritual at all (Ein mit-asekin, "We do not engage ourselves with them"). But even in the case of these individuals the law gradually changed and we are required to bury them, of course, and provide Kaddish and shrouds. See the references on this particular matter in Recent Reform Responsa, pp. 118-119:

The strictest of all codifiers is Maimonides ("Hilchot Evel") who says that there should be no mourning rites), and so forth, but only the blessing for the mourners. The Ramban, in Toledot Haadam, says that there should be tearing of the garments. The next step is taken by Solomon ben Adret, the great legal authority of Barcelona (13th century) in his Responsum 763. He says that certainly we are in duty bound to provide shrouds and burial. Later authorities, as, for example, Moses Sofer, in his Responsa, Yoreh De-a 326, says that we certainly do say Kaddish; and, further, he would permit any respectable family to go through all the mourning ritual, lest the family have to bear innocently eternal disgrace if, conspicuously, they failed to exercise mourning.

Thus, it is clear that our Jewish tradition was rather insistent that a definite amount of ritual be carried out in the presence of the departed. Of course, a memorial service in the absence of the body of the departed is proper and traditional (e.g., in the case when the body is lost at sea or for some other reason cannot be found). Nor is there any objection in tradition to a memorial service taking place after the funeral, especially in the case of honored scholars, when it was a tradition to hold memorial services in various cities (therefore obviously in the absence of the body). Also, at the end of thirty days of mourning or at the anniversary of the death, such memorial services were held. But all these memorial services were never meant to be a substitute for the actual funeral service at the time of death.

As to the question we have raised above, namely, whether the avoidance of these rituals is sound psychologically, we may now say rather positively that the observance of these rituals is psychologically sound. A recent book by Jack D. Spiro, entitled A Time to Mourn, states the following (page 114):

Expressing Grief. Through various laws, the mourner is required to remind himself of the death of his loved object, not only for the purpose of facing reality, but also to help in giving vent to his feelings. Mourning is basically an affective process which operates to relieve the tension of frustrated love impulses. But it does so only if the mourner is capable of expressing the related emotions. As Lindemann points out, one of the most serious obstacles to accomplishing the work of mourning is that "patients try to avoid the intense distress connected with the grief experience and to avoid the expression of emotion necessary for it." When an emotion is denied expression, it is not destroyed, but only pushed down into the unconscious. The pressure builds up and may manifest itself in some disguised, unwholesome form. By giving vent to the affective tension caused by the frustration of his love impulses, the mourner moves on his way toward severing his emotional ties to the deceased. The dynamic energy itself, which had been consumed in the love relationship, seeks satisfaction. Through the expression of grief this energy is used, thus bringing emotional relief to the mourner and gradually allaying the affective force of the love relationship. The mourner thereby becomes capable of detaching himself from the deceased.

It is evident, therefore, that this new practice of avoiding committal services entirely or avoiding the family presence if there is a committal service, is both contrary to tradition and to sound mental health and should, therefore, be discouraged.

Solomon B. Freehof

See Also:

S.B. Freehof, "Body Lost at Sea," Reform Responsa, pp. 147ff; "Funeral Services Without the Body," Modern Reform Responsa, pp. 110ff.

88. Burial from the Temple, also with Reference to Burial of Suicides

(Vol. XXXIII, 1923, pp. 61-63)

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.)

Henry Berkowitz

(Opinion confirmed by Jacob Z. Lauterbach and Committee)

See also

S.B. Freehof, "Funerals from the Temple," Reform Responsa for Our Time, pp. 95ff.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.