Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington
by Harris Weinstein
United Synagogue Convention
November 16, 1977
Perhaps the general point that I want to make is that our congregation, Tifereth Israel, and others in the Washington, D.C. area, have reached or are approaching the position developed by Adath Jeshurun in Minneapolis, on whose experience we have greatly drawn. We have, however, followed a somewhat different route, importantly determined by our congregation’s size and the circumstances prevailing in our particular community. I am convinced that any congregation that wishes to do so, can follow the same route, and I urge for your consideration the proposition that every congregation has the duty to address the question of its responsibility when a member dies or is bereaved.
In this talk, I intend to cover three general topics: (1) the history and content of our congregation’s funeral program; (2) the development and activities of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington; and (3) my own observations on the options that are open to congregations that decide to address the funeral question.
1. Our congregation is a relatively small one, although I understand its size may be average for the United Synagogue. Our full dues-payinq membership over the last several years has been less than 200 families, although an additional 50 families or individuals consider themselves part of our congregational community to one extent or another. Approximately 300 people, including children, some out-of-town relatives, and some non-members, attend our high holiday services. We are not a financially secure congregation, and we have had to proceed with extraordinarily careful consideration of the congregation’s limited resources.
We could not have made progress without the cooperation of other Washington congregations. There are perhaps over 40 synagogues in and around Washington, D.C. about a dozen of us — including a number of larger congregations – work together in an informal alliance called the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington. The idea is to develop options that will be available to all, but binding on none.
Our congregation’s effort began at a congregational retreat two years ago. We started without preconceptions. We began to discuss the responsibility of the congregation to its members in a variety of religious matters, including funerals. Although we had long had a cemetery committee, we had never formed a funeral committee. The result of the retreat was the formation of a committee that was charged with the responsibility of studying funeral practices and developing a program for responding to death within the congregational community.
We had to start by learning about funeral practices ourselves. We found that, although most of us had been bereaved at one time or another, we were badly misinformed or uninformed about Jewish tradition and law. Our committee spent several months studying ritual and tradition. We simultaneously set out to learn what practices prevailed in our community. We also systematically surveyed other congregations in our community to learn how they dealt with death.
Our own study and learning process was vastly accelerated by our ability to draw on materials that other congregations in Washington and elsewhere had already prepared. In all our work, we consulted with and were importantly guided by our own rabbi — A. Nathan Abramowitz. With that guidance we developed our sense of what a Jewish funeral should be: tachrichim and taharah, shomrim, a simple and inexpensive wooden casket, and democracy and equality in death. .Embalming was not appropriate unless required by law, and that was rarely the case. We also concluded that the congregation had a responsibility: to prepare its members to deal with death in a Jewish way; to assist members and their survivors at the time of death; and to have specific recommendations for those who wanted guidance.
What we found in our survey of prevailing practices disturbed us greatly. We found that Jews were being guided primarily by funeral homes under Jewish ownership and that they were generally not being guided toward a Jewish funeral. We learned that the prices for funerals in these establishments were substantially higher than those available elsewhere in the Washington area. Our own investigation and analysis of the economics of the funeral business convinced us that there was no justification for this price disparity. Our investigation of other matters – for example, the question of whether an odor arises in a met after death – persuaded us that there was no basis for funeral directors’ pressuring the bereaved to purchase embalming and to follow other practices inconsistent with Jewish tradition. The statistics we were given about embalming distressed us. Neither of the local funeral homes under Jewish ownership then had refrigeration — something I should say has now changed. The lack of refrigeration was as telling as it was shocking. One funeral home said that 60 percent of its cases used embalming. The other, in our first interview of the owner, said 90 percent — a figure that was modified in later statements. We knew from interviews with the bereaved that claims of potential odor were used to merchandise embalming. One of the funeral homes was in the process of furnishing two fancy rooms for what the funeral industry euphemistically calls “visitations;” the other told us that embalmed bodies were routinely displayed in the period just prior to the funeral service. When we, along with representatives of the Washington Board of Rabbis, were later given data on the incidence of tachrichim and taharah, we were again shocked: significantly less than half the funerals at these homes conformed with halacha. At one establishment, only 15% of the funerals included taharah and tachrichim without embalming.
Now that refrigeration facilities have been installed, we hope that the incidence of embalming will decrease. It should. Yet, one of the two funeral homes, since installing refrigeration, has required what is called “hygienic cleansing” — we’re not quite sure what it is, I must say — but it appears’ to constitute a treatment of the met that is unnecessary and inconsistent with traditional practices.
We decided that our members deserved better guidance when they suffered a bereavement, and that we bore the responsibility for not having provided guidance in the past. Reliance on the funeral homes had not been merely inadequate, but it was inappropriate. We recognized, however, that the efforts of the funeral directors were to be expected in a free market, and that the bereaved are highly vulnerable, and that our default of responsibility played a large part in the development of the practices that distressed us. It was our responsibility, we recognized, to educate our members before death struck, to comfort and aid them in their time of bereavement, and to help bury them when they died. We also concluded that the market place would not provide the type of funeral we thought appropriate unless we represented the bereaved both before and at the time of death. Our own beliefs in a free market economy persuaded us that sellers would respond to demand and that we had to influence the content of that demand.
2. After our study phase was essentially completed, our first step was to organize ourselves into a rotating panel of volunteers. Each month, two of us were available to counsel bereaved families before they made funeral arrangements and to go to the funeral home with them or for them.
At the same time, we started to educate our congregation. We covered subjects such as halacha and tradition, prevailing practices, economics of funerals, estate planning, organ donation, and ethical wills.
Our progress from this point on depended importantly on the willingness of the representatives of many congregations to work together. In talking to others, we had found many that shared our concern with the prevailing state of Jewish funerals in our community. The result was a meeting of representatives of a number of congregations, the formation of several working groups, and the evolution of a lay organization that we now call the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington.
The initial efforts of this lay alliance took three directions: education, negotiations with funeral directors, and long-term planning and thinking about such possibilities as a community-owned, non-profit funeral home.
Our educational efforts to date have included production of a short pamphlet that summarized Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform views of pertinent questions; helping the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington conduct a workshop on funeral problems; and formation of a speaker’s bureau. During the next six months, we intend to encourage actively the formation of funeral practices committees in congregations that are now without one, and to seek out invitations to our speaker’s bureau.
We will also encourage distribution of some form of our pamphlet. It was intentionally drafted so that it could readily be adapted to the needs and views of any congregation. Thus, a year ago, my own congregation handed every family at Rosh Hashanah services a copy of a modified form of the pamphlet — modified as our rabbi thought appropriate to reflect conservative views. Now we leave a copy of that form of the pamphlet with every bereaved family whom we counsel.
Together with representatives of the Washington board of rabbis, we made extensive efforts to work out an agreement with the Jewish-owned funeral businesses in our community. We failed. I won’t develop this subject at this point, but if there is interest in the history of these negotiations, I would, be pleased to go into it in greater detail in response to a question or after we adjourn.
I do, however, want to mention the essential function that the Washington board of rabbis has performed in leading our community to recognize the importance of the funeral question. It has an active funeral practices committee, chaired by Rabbi Martin Halpern. In addition to instituting the negotiations that I just mentioned, the Board of Rabbis submitted a statement to the Federal Trade Commission in support of the now pending proposal to adopt a trade regulation rule applicable to the funeral business; it encouraged its members to address funeral questions in individual congregations; it. has specifically recognized that the cost of a funeral is a religious question. In short, its continuing active attention to the problem of funerals has been a critical part of what has been happening in Washington.
About a year ago, the lay persons who are active in the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington decided to learn whether nonsectarian funeral establishments were willing to provide a simple Jewish funeral. We wanted an agreement that the congregation would control all practices and that a fair price would be charged for the simple, traditional funeral that we desired.
We finally found two funeral homes that were seriously interested in providing the kind of funeral we wanted at a price that we thought was consistent with prevailing market conditions. Last spring, two of the members of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington negotiated an open contract with one of these funeral establishments — W.W. Chambers. It is in effect an open and binding offer by Chambers to provide a simple funeral with the practices controlled entirely by the synagogue. Any Jewish organization that wishes to take advantage of the offer signs its own agreement with Chambers. So far, three congregations have done so. Interestingly, one is Orthodox, one is Conservative, and one is Reform.
The price is $425 during the week, with a $70 surcharge if the burial takes place on a Sunday. The funeral service itself may take place either at the synagogue., the home of the deceased or bereaved, the funeral home’s nonsectarian chapel, or at the graveside. The price cannot be changed without 90 days advance notice.
Our research convinces us that in most parts of the country, a simple halachic funeral should be less than $500, plus cemetery costs. Even in high-cost areas, such as New York City, I am not aware of any reason for the price to exceed $750. Anyone who wants to study the economics of funerals in a specific locality might want to start, as we did, by consulting with a local memorial society to determine the prices it has negotiated for its members.
3. So far, our congregation has had only one complete funeral there. It worked out entirely satisfactorily. We have also used this funeral home for another funeral, where the principal problem was to have the met taken to a location where our shomrim could be with it, where taharah could be performed, and arrangements made for transportation to another city.
We believe that use of this funeral plan is presently the only way in which Jews in the Washington community can be assured of a funeral that complies in all respects with Jewish tradition, including reasonable price.
This funeral, to be sure, requires work by members .of the congregation that makes it available to its members. But part of our purpose is to return responsibility for funerals to the community, as traditionally was the case. In our own congregation, we have formed a men’s Chevra Kadisha to perform taharah; we buy our own tachrichim; we have organized volunteer shomrim; we have chaverim available to meet with a bereaved family at any time of the day or night; we are prepared to provide a meal for the bereaved family after the funeral, if that is required; and we make all arrangements for shiva, ranging from folding chairs to minyans in the house of mourning.
Perhaps it would be of interest if I describe what was done on one recent death. At 3:00 a.m., one of the chaverim received a phone call. A member’s parent had just died. That Chaver and another were at the house by 4:00 a.m. (We have concluded, by the way, that whenever possible, two chaverim, one woman and one man, will make the first visit to the bereaved.) They first led the family in lighting a candle in the room where the met was, and in reading psalms. When it became appropriate to discuss funeral plans, the chaverim determined that the deceased was neither a member nor a legal dependent of a member. This meant that our funeral package was available to the family, but not at congregational expense. It turned out that the deceased was to be buried several hundred miles away from Washington. The chaverim, with the help of our rabbi and other members of our committee, did these things for the next 12 hours.
-advised the family on what a jewish funeral is. They were given our pamphlet.
-helped the family think through the problem of informing other family members who were in different parts of the country.
–specified in writing the steps that had to be worked out.
–obtained information about a funeral home near the designated cemetery.
–spelled out the options on how to transport the met to the out-of-town cemetery.
–helped the family think about the best way to tell the children who were then asleep about their grandparent’s death.
-called the funeral home and arranged the time at which the met was to be taken to the funeral home.
–called our shomrim chairman; the first shomer arrived at the funeral home just a few minutes after the met.
–called our men’s Chevra Kadisha chairman, so he could arrange for taharah, which was performed in this case before the met left Washington.
–called our shiva chairman, so he could start to do his job. While the family was away at the funeral, he brought prayer books, yarmulkas, and chairs to the home where shiva was to be. He spoke to neighbors, who saw that food was there when the family returned. Our minyan chairman organized daily minyans at the time the family requested.
–a newspaper in a city where the deceased had lived for many years was called and encouraged to print an article on the deceased’s contributions to that community, which it did.
This is how we want to operate. But we would not be prepared to function in this comprehensive way if we had not learned a year ago, through the Washington Post, of Adath Jeshurun’s funeral program. We were fortunate in that one of our members knows Rabbi Goodman and that another member’s family belongs to Adath Jeshurun. We quickly obtained information on the program and started considering the feasibility of adopting a similar program for our own congregation.
We finally concluded last spring that, despite our small size, our moral responsibility required the congregation to take the financial risk and provide free funerals to our members. We weren’t quite ready, but we had our first funeral on June 1, when one of our members was murdered. In part, we had to act as the funeral directors, which is one of the aspects of our contract. We arranged for taharah. Our shomrim stayed with the met on the way to and at the medical examiner’s office, and in the funeral home. The women’s Chevra Kadisha in Washington — the Chevrat Nashim, composed entirely of Orthodox women who have worked closely with us in the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington — told us that they had never received as much cooperation as they received from the owner of this non-sectarian funeral establishment.
Because of the nature of the Washington community and our congregation, we have decided that all dependent relatives of members will be eligible for free funerals and that others will, on a case-by-case basis, be offered our package funeral and the assistance of our committee.
We do things a little differently than Adath Jeshurun. Like them, we ask that any Social Security or Veteran’s benefits be assigned to the congregation, and if we think it appropriate, we solicit donations from the beneficiaries of our program. Unlike Adath Jeshurun, we now have decided not to maintain a separate fund of these monies. We are not able to construct our own coffins or to make our own tachrichim. Our membership and our funeral committee are much smaller than theirs. Perhaps we do not do quite as much for our members as Adath Jeshurun does. But we have found that we and other congregations in the community can organize in a way that offers long-term hope of restoring community responsibility for funeral practices. In the process, we have found that our members are grateful to have the information and ether help that we can provide them, and those of us who have participated in the experience have found it rewarding and enriching.
4. Of course, we have encountered problems. They mainly seem to result from a lack of understanding of Jewish law; and tradition, and the sound basis that exists for that tradition. For example, at times, family members who do not belong to our congregation strongly want a funeral that differs from what we recommend; we believe that death and funerals should not prompt family squabbles, and that principle is more important than our own views of what a proper funeral is.
The answer, we believe, is patience and education. Educational programs must be repeated, and we must be sensitive to the human problems involved. We need to recognize that the worth and success of our efforts can be judged only over a period of many years.
One item on our agenda for the future is cemeteries, we do not have the sort of comprehensive regulatory legislation that exists in some jurisdictions. In time, we hope to correct this situation.
5. To try to generalize, many alternative courses are open to the congregation that concludes it should be responsible for helping its members respond to death. But the universal experience seems to be that time, study, and people are the essential components. It is essential to develop an understanding of what a Jewish funeral is and what practices prevail in a given community. There must be a commitment to a long-term program.
But that program may take many forms. Education is likely to be part of it – but the content and format of the educational program must meet the needs of a particular congregation, information and advice must be provided to the bereaved — but there are many ways to do it. For example, one reform congregation in Washington has a monthly column on funeral questions in its bulletin. A funeral package may not be necessary everywhere; a counseling service by itself gives the bereaved support that is needed. Each congregation must make its own decision about who should be eligible for assistance, for the resources of a volunteer effort need to be husbanded carefully. Congregations with a package will make individualized decisions about the type and amount of help to be given those who do not use the package. Who pays the cost must depend on the congregation’s resources and conflicting priorities. In some communities, congregations may act individually; elsewhere, cooperative efforts may be useful.
But the important point is to address the issues — and for each congregation to decide how it can best help its members when death occurs.