The Jew in American Life
Rabbi Samuel Dresner – 1963
Chapter 2 – The Scandal of the Jewish Funeral
Some time ago the cemetery committees of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Synagogues of Springfield, Massachusetts, met and approved eight proposals dealing with funeral and mourning practices which they had requested the rabbinate of the community to draw up.
This meeting, which climaxed more than a year of discussion and debate, may well prove to have marked a turning point in the American Jewish community.
Because at that meeting communal leaders came to grips with a situation in American Jewish life which all agree is intolerable.
Let me first enumerate some of the common flagrant violations of the law and spirit of Jewish tradition in regard to burial and mourning.
A beloved wife, husband, father, or mother dies. One of the first things that must be done is to “select” a casket. At the funeral parlor, the grief-stricken mourner is invited to a fashion show in which he is asked to judge the merits of various caskets, including beauty, durability, quality, etc. If the mourner is not shown a simple wooden casket (a common practice), and he requests it-for he himself may prefer it, the deceased may have requested it, and, above all, Jewish law requires it-the undertaker may reply: “It’s out of date.” “It may fall apart in a day or two.” “Don’t you want to honor your mother (or wife, etc.)?”
The mourner may finally and reluctantly be taken to a dimly lit, unkempt back room where the plain wooden caskets are kept.
In the end, the innocent mourner is likely to follow the suggestion of the undertaker and buy an elegant, plush-lined casket in the belief that this is the proper way to remember the departed, even though the cost is far beyond what he can afford.
The strict laws of simplicity and equality in Jewish funerals had their origins in conditions some two thousand years ago which are strikingly reminiscent of those prevalent today. It is recorded in the Talmud:
Formerly they used to bring food to the house of mourning, the rich in baskets of gold and silver, the poor in baskets of willow twigs; and the poor felt ashamed. Therefore a law was instituted that all should use baskets of willow twigs.
Formerly they used to bring out the deceased for burial, the rich on a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets, the poor on a plain bier (or box); and the poor felt ashamed. Therefore a law was instituted that all should be brought out on a plain bier.
Formerly the expense of the burial was harder to bear by the family than the death itself, so that sometimes they fled to escape the expense. This was so until Rabban Gamaliel insisted that he be buried in a plain linen shroud instead of costly garments. And since then we follow the principle of burial in a simple manner. – Moed Katan: 27 a, b.
It is inhuman to require that the grief-stricken mourner “go shopping” for burial arrangements, and criminal to urge him to spend large sums on the funeral, which Jewish law tells us must be as simple as possible.
Music is often played at the funeral parlor, expensive wreaths of flowers are displayed, the deceased is placed “on view” for several days, dressed in the latest fashion, and new customs-such as the pallbearer’s glove ceremony-are introduced at the discretion of the undertaker.
After reading an article of mine dealing with simplicity and equality in funerals (United Synagogue Review, N.Y. Spring, 1961) a Chicago woman wrote me that “the whole atmosphere of funeral chapels has been changed so that the elaborateness plus the lighting tends to make the room more like a social hall than a room for mourners. When my dear mother passed away recently, I selected a casket beyond my means because I didn’t want people to talk.”
Why should people “talk”? Only because certain attitudes cultivated in the general American environment have gradually permeated the old strongholds of Jewish life. A description of these attitudes, an analysis of how they came about, and an appeal for change is found in a series of angry articles which followed one another in rapid procession in Reader’s Digest, Coronet, Time, The Saturday Evening Post, The Progressive, and Jubilee. The titles of the articles alone-“Can You Afford to Die?”, “The High Cost of Dying,” “What Should a Funeral Cost?”, etc.-are indicative of their content.
The following material is drawn from them:
It is a fact that even in the most fashionable city funeral homes it is possible to buy a perfectly adequate funeral for about $250. In one, an attractive cloth-covered casket is priced at only $94.00. Most people, however, do not buy an inexpensive casket. Torn by grief or guilt, subject to a subtle but effective sales pitch, afflicted by a natural desire for display (“most people want to die up”), they turn from cloth-covered soft wood to costly hardwoods and spe cially sealed metal caskets. In the past ten years the price of cloth-covered wooden caskets has risen only 8 per cent. . . , yet of the $167,300,000 worth of caskets sold last year, 66 per cent of that figure were high-cost metal and only 19 per cent, cloth-covered wood.
While living costs have risen 24.6 per cent in the past decade, funeral charges have soared 42.4 per cent. Thus the country’s annual burial bill of almost two billion dollars by far exceeds the amount spent each year in hospitals to recover from illness.
One woman who, having been shown a $515 casket, asked the owner if he had something less expensive, was told that he did have a “flat top” if she’d care to come out to the garage to look at it. “But I assure you,’, he added with distaste, “that you wouldn’t be caught dead in it!”
Selling funerals out of proportion to the family’s way of life is also a frequent abuse. In 1950, the United Auto Workers made a study of Ford Motor Company pensioners who died during the year and found that while average life insurance benefits were only $1,300, average funeral expenses were more than $800. The business agent of a Los Angeles Union recently announced that he would no longer provide undertakers with information about deceased members’ insurance policies. He had learned that instead of using the information to keep costs within reasonable limits, undertakers had been charging up to the amount of the total benefits.
Perhaps the most shocking instance of merciless price gouging brought to public notice occurred in 1947 in Illinois, when one hundred eleven miners in Centralia died in a coal mine disaster. Some local undertakers charged widows as much as $1,178.50 for funerals. Charges for identical services and caskets are said to have varied by several hundreds of dollars, depending on the size of the amount credited to the dead miner in the form of Union Welfare death benefits and state compensation.
The high profits in an industry where there are no government controls and no buyer’s resistance is attested to by a Senate Committee hearing in 1947, when one witness who owned four well-known funeral parlors told the committee why he gave up his job in a livery stable to become an undertaker. “What appealed to me mostly was when I saw one of them [undertakers] buy a casket for seventeen dollars and sell it to a poor, broken widow for two-hundred sixty-five dollars. I said, “This is awful sweet. I can’t let this go.”
A Canadian archbishop wrote the Funeral Directors’ Association that because “the cost of dying is getting out of all proportion, it might be well for the Association to make an agonizing reappraisal not only of price structures, but also of pagan customs and trappings that have crept into the industry.”
The Roman Catholic magazine, Jubilee, published a recent article pointing out that the basis of the modern funeral industry is elaborate embalming, featuring “that alive look.” This “has enabled corpses to look more and more like window-display mannequins and visitation with them has become quite popular.” One successful undertaker remarked that “people generally come in the afternoon and go out for dinner and come back.”
It would seem that some embalming supply houses wish to make the dead look healthier than those who mourn for them.
The Frigid Fluid Company of Chicago, Illinois, advertises: “NEW! NEW! NEW! Lanol-Tex Arterial Fluid. . . Nature’s Own Way to Soft Skin Texture,” which “restores the same condition to the skin as during life.” The Gold Crest Chemical Corporation of Wilmington, Delaware, is proud that everybody is talking about Rubin-X Jaundice Dual Injection Fluids,” which provide “a gentle and fast-bleaching action with no spotting.” In case of dissatisfaction with the product, “you may return to us for full credit after embalming your first case.
Mourners notes Psychology of Funeral Service, a guide for under takers, “are less capable of reasoning than under normal conditions….They want to do the accepted thing.” Sometimes “the accepted thing” can run as high as a $19,000 casket with “Ever-Seal air, water-tight construction, and Ever-Rite adjustable bed, all in a zestful champagne finish, with a semi-tailored interior of gold-tone, Savoy crepe.”
“Never say to a client,” advises the publication Successful Mortuary Operation and Service, “I can tell by the fine suit you’re wearing that you appreciate fine things and will want a fine casket for your father.” Instead, it urges the funeral director to say, “Think of the beautiful memory picture you will have of your dear father in this beautiful casket.’ After quoting a price, continue talking for a moment or two. And never use the dollar sign on the price tag!”
Replying to some undertakers who claim that making funeral arrangements is a “therapy of grief,” Dr. J. Bartlett, dean of a West Coast school for the ministry, says that, “The soft lights, the inner-spring mattresses, the prettying up of the remains by cosmetics, and the fake grass at the cemetery does not help one to face the reality of the loss or increase the sentiment. Funeral directors try to make you feel that the more you spend, the better the therapy.”
Speaking bluntly, Mrs. J. Treuhaft of Oakland, California, said, “It’s a racket!. Why can’t we have funerals without fins?”
But Neil Brown, president of the San Francisco Funeral Directors’ Association, thinks differently: “If we Americans have a high standard of living, we also have a high standard of dying. It’s the American way!”
To encourage the “American way,” the magazine Mortuary Management published a series of suggestions from funeral directors on how to handle clergymen who try to influence parishioners to purchase less expensive caskets. One suggested that the minister be invited into the undertaker’s office for coffee while the family is left in the showroom to make a selection. “This works part of the time,” the magazine added.
Is it any wonder then that a survey made in 1959 for the National Funeral Directors’ Association, by Dr. Robert Fulton, a sociologist at Los Angeles State College, revealed that 51 per cent of Protestant clergymen and 41 per cent of Roman Catholic clerics believe that “American funeral directors exploited or took advantage of a family’s grief in selling funeral services? (The industry replied in an editorial broadside in their magazine, Casket and Sunnyside, conceding that the minister has “every right to be consulted on the time of the funeral, and that he might have some say about other details, but that the price of the service is not his prerogative and that he should not go into the selection room.”)
It is the task of those in the funeral profession [according to a manual for undertakers entitled Psychology of Funeral Service] to educate the public in the right paths. Within the past twenty years, the task of education has been executed so skillfully that lavish funerals are now equated with religious devotion and family loyalty, and so thoroughly that the undertaker’s take-over from the clergyman seems complete-and more profitable than ever. Even the growing number of undertaking establishments does not pro vide competition in lower prices because there are few persons who would not be repelled at the thought of bargaining at such a moment. The lavish funeral has been carefully cultivated, from cemeteries for pets to Los Angeles’ monstrous Forest Lawn, with its three hundred unbelievable acres of trees, ponds, wedding chapels, statues, paintings-and bodies. Disregarding that they are tradesmen, selling caskets, vaults, and other merchandise and services, undertakers have often minimized such mundane considerations as dollars and cents and concentrated on pride and respect and-cruelly-feelings of guilt. (Quotations and facts in the above pages were taken from Time, Nov. 14, 1960, The Progressive, 1961, Coronet, Oct., 1961, Readers Digest, April, 1949, The Saturday Evening Post, June 17, 1961.)
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This being the deplorable situation in the general community, we can now better comprehend that the Jewish community, too, is beginning to feel the corroding influence of the American environment upon it, breaking down standards that have been maintained for centuries. A former New England casket salesman, a Gentile, told me that within the past ten to twenty years there has been a decided change in the kind of caskets ordered by the large Jewish funeral establishments. While “wakes,” embalming, and solid mahogany or metal caskets were unusual in former days, he pointed out, they are now becoming more and more common. And along with rampant commercialization has come vulgarity on other levels.
Thus, before a Jewish funeral, it is now not uncommon for friends to “visit” the funeral parlor, to find them talking, laughing, even joking, where only silent respect or worship are appropriate. Then, after the funeral, the family and friends often return in droves to the mourner’s home, where it is expected that the grieving family provide food and drink.
A woman who had lost her husband turned to me weeping: “Rabbi, the whole family crowded into my home after the funeral, eating and laughing, laughing and eating, so that my heart could break. Why? Because my husband died?”
A Bronx, New York, store advertises: “We cater shivahs”I
Such festive funeral banquets make a mockery out of mourning.
Jewish custom requires the first meal after the burial to be pre pared by friends and neighbors, not the mourners. Jewish law enjoins us to be sensitive to the feelings of the mourner and, therefore, we are not to speak to him until he first speaks to us. How much the less should we engage in socializing-even sometimes in gaiety-at shivah visits!
Another letter among the hundreds I received in response to the above-mentioned article was from a man well known both in his profession and in the Jewish community. “My principal reason for writing,” he said, “is to congratulate all those responsible for taking action to bring about simplicity and equality in funerals. Compelling people of modest tastes and pocketbooks to bury their dead in inlaid mahogany or bronze caskets or what-have-you is a disgrace to Jewish life and death. We have experienced it in our family and so have others…. Decorum at funeral services is also something that is crying for correction. People attend funeral services to pay respect to the departed and engage in loud conversations in such a manner that it is a mark of disrespect to the departed. Condolence calls have degenerated into cocktail hours, and about the only thing that remains is for someone to set up a table and deal the cards for a game of bridge. My wife and I have been so disturbed by what we often have witnessed when Jews pay condolence calls that we have agreed that the ‘memorial week’ may well disappear.”
These present-day abuses of funeral and mourning practice moved some of the rabbis and congregations of Springfield to action. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform were equally concerned. The following are the regulations regarding funeral and mourning practices for the Jewish community of Springfield:
- In keeping with Jewish tradition which teaches the equality of all men, and that therefore there should be no distinction at time of death between rich and poor, there will be one uniform casket used for all funerals. This casket will be draped with a cover of the congregation.
- In keeping with the above tradition, no flowers will be permitted at funerals. Instead, friends and relatives will be encouraged to contribute to the charities of their congregations and other worthy causes.
- The casket will remain closed at all times. The living should be helped to remember the departed as they were in life, not with the image of death.
- Out of respect to the departed, the body should never be left alone; a shomer (guard) should remain with the departed at all times until the funeral. During this period Psalms should be recited.
- Rather than engage in idle conversation, visitors to the place where the departed reposes should be encouraged to recite from the Book of Psalms and other literature which should be made available for this purpose.
- According to Jewish tradition, it is not required to visit the funeral parlor prior to the funeral, or that the family be available for such visits at the funeral parlor. It is, however, a mitzvah to be present at the funeral service and to visit the family during the shivah period.
- No special gloves shall be provided to the pallbearers.
- Meals provided by mourners for those attending shivah services should be discouraged as an imposition on the family.
(As of this date (Dec., 1962), these rules, with varying changes, have been approved by the cemetery committees and boards of the Conservative, Reform, and largest Orthodox congregations of Springfield. The changes made by the Conservative congregation are in rule 1, which now “recommends” a single casket, and 7, which is broadened to read: “The introduction [by the funeral director] of any new practices in the funeral service must have the approval of the Rabbi, Hevra Kaddisha and the Board.”
The above eight proposals which were drawn up and presented to our respective congregations could have been enlarged upon, but we wanted to establish an approach which would be acceptable to all wings of Jewry. For example, Conservative and Orthodox congregations also require ritual washing of the body and the garbing in shrouds in accordance with Jewish law.
The wide response to this proposal from various parts of the country testified to the seriousness of the situation. For example, a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal of Mount Vernon, New York, published the following editorial on the front page of his congregational bulletin under the title ‘Rabbis Ban Lavish Funerals”:
A pronouncement which should have far-reaching effects on American Jewry has been issued by the rabbis of Springfield, Massachusetts, representing Conservative, Orthodox and Reform elements in that city.
With the passage of time, from the days of our immigrant forbears, our concept of Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals has been changed, essentially through the influence of our Christian neighbors and Hollywood extravaganzas. For many years, insidiously, the simple funeral for which Jews were known and which our Christian neighbors thought sensible, although they never emulated it, has developed into an undertaker’s delight. Gone is the plain pine box; the shrouds; the Psalms; the immediate burial; the simple ceremony and mourners giving vent to their feelings. It has become impolite to grieve for a departed beloved one, and the cost of coffins has climbed to three and four figures, in violation of Rabbinical injunction.
Shiva has developed into an atmosphere of the afternoon cock-tail party. Formerly it was the duty of neighbors to feed the bereaved and food was brought to them. If, perchance, the visitor was offered nourishment by the bereaved or a neighbor, it was almost a duty to refuse such food. The contrary has developed today; potato chips, fruit, cigarettes and drinks are spread for the entertainment of the visitor. Smoke is generally so thick and the din of conversation so loud, one could well wonder what is taking place.
Unfortunately, the celebrant or bereaved assumes he is unqualified to choose for himself. As a result, the mortician has under-taken the funeral arrangements; the caterer has pre-empted the Bar Mitzvah function and wedding, until the latter two have become three-ring circuses, with food for the unhungry before and after the ceremony, and sufficient drink prior to the nuptials to remove some of the holy spirit of sanctification.
The decree by the Springfield rabbis calls for simplicity in funeral arrangements; a simple casket covered by black cloth; the body not on view; and a return to the solemnity of shiva. Let us hope this is a step in the right direction and that similar action will be taken to correct other lapses in American Jewry.
Further evidence of concern about Jewish funeral practices can be seen in a pronouncement made by the Chicago Board of Rabbis and two editorials in his congregational bulletin by Rabbi Max Routtenberg, of Rockville Centre, New York, Chairman of the Committee on Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly of America.
The Chicago Board of Rabbis is greatly concerned over existing local funeral practices which violate the letter and the spirit of Jewish tradition. The practice to place a dead body on exhibition during a “visitation,” whether in the chapel or at home, is a gross violation. Despite its widespread character, it is of recent and alien origin and in total disharmony with Jewish concepts and traditions. View of the body is inappropriate…Only a vigil held by the immediate family with the departed is proper.
The proper, time-honored manner in which to pay one’s last respects is to perform the great mitzvah of attending the funeral itself. The only proper time to make condolence calls is after the funeral and at home where the traditional mourning period is observed. To expose the mourners to the ordeal of greeting visitors while deep in grief, sometimes even in a state of shock, no matter how well-intentioned the caller is, is wholly out of keeping with Jewish counsel on how to console mourners.
We call upon Jews to whom the precepts of Judaism are sacred and who share our abhorrence of a custom that is as un-Jewish as it is unfeeling to unite in eradicating this evil from our midst. Let us honor the name of God by sharing our compassion for sufferers in their hour of grief through the dignified, reverent and time-honored ways taught by our tradition.
In his editorial, “Let’s Put an End to It,” Rabbi Routtenberg writes:
This matter has been on my mind for some time. It is hardly the most pleasant subject for discussion, but it is something that all of us have to face at one time or another and I want to place my position on the record, unequivocally, so that there can be no mistake about it.
I am referring to the custom that has grown up of having pre-funeral visitations in the funeral chapel, where the deceased is put on display and the bereaved are required to be present to greet the would-be comforters. Jewish life has witnessed the introduction of new customs and practices which have enhanced and enriched our way of life. This custom has lowered our standards and has debased our traditional procedures relating to the proper respect for the dead and the duty we owe to the mourners. I am strongly opposed to this alien, un-Jewish custom for a variety of reasons and I should like to see us put an end to it.
For one thing, we Jews do not regard it as a matter of respect to the dead to exhibit his body to public view. A person in death is entitled to privacy. To bedeck and adorn him as though he were still alive has the element of mockery in it. Our tradition teaches us that when a person dies his body has lost all significance-it returns to the dust as it was. Only the spirit that animated it lives on-in the hearts and minds and affections of those who knew and loved him. He is remembered best by not viewing his inert remains but by recalling the quality and character of his life.
Perhaps even more important, the mourners are called upon to make a public appearance at the very moment when they have a tremendous need to be alone with their nearest and dearest ones. This custom subjects them to an excruciating ordeal from which they ought to be spared. Certainly, our first consideration at time of death should be for the bereaved and their needs. The pre-funeral visitations are an exhausting and frequently embarrassing experience for which there is no justification.
The proper, time-honored manner in which to pay one’s respects to the dead is to attend the funeral itself, not the “wake,” which so many are doing to fulfill their obligation. The only proper time to console the mourners is after the funeral, at their home, where they are observing the period of mourning.
I heartily endorse the recent statement issued by the Chicago Board of Rabbis, representing a united Chicago rabbinate, which said, in part: “We call upon the Jews to whom the precepts of Judaism are sacred and who share our abhorrence of a custom that is as un-Jewish as it is unfeeling to unite in eradicating this evil from our midst. Let us honor the name of God by sharing our compassion for sufferers in their hour of grief through the dignified, reverent and time-honored ways taught by our tradition.
And in “I Wish They Wouldn’t Do That!” Rabbi Routtenberg describes a common funeral practice:
Have you ever attended a picnic at a cemetery? Of course no one has ever invited you to such an affair. You would regard it as a macabre jest if you were to receive such an invitation. And yet, unsuspectingly and innocently enough, you have been a party to such an occasion-or you will be.
You receive a card in the mail inviting you to attend the unveiling of a tombstone to the memory of a member of your family or of a dear friend. You want to participate in this service of memorial to a beloved one and you make your way to the cemetery. It is a solemn occasion in a solemn place. You join the family and friends who have gathered to pay their respects, in prayer and in eulogy, to one who now rests in peace in his eternal home. It is usually a year or less since the death of the deceased and the memories are still fresh and the wounds have not yet healed. It is a moment of sorrow, of contemplation, of meditation.
And then, suddenly, when the last prayer has been uttered and the kaddish has been intoned, some one in the group appears with a picnic basket and out come bottles of liquor, cakes and cookies. The mood and atmosphere are miraculously transformed and you find yourself at a picnic! You wonder, have the people gone out of their minds? Have they forgotten where they are? Are they so boorish that they do not know the elementary rules of etiquette, the proprieties of conduct in a cemetery?
Not at all. They are quite innocent, these people who bring the refreshments to be served after the service of unveiling. They have been told that this is a proper Jewish practice, that it is part of the tradition of Judaism and not to do it would constitute a violation of a sacred custom.
May I disillusion the “innocents” and inform them that serving refreshments in the cemetery is not proper Jewish practice, that it is frowned upon by the tradition and is prohibited by the classical law-makers. In the Shulkan Arukh, the code regarded as most authoritative by traditional Jews, it is specifically stated in Yoreh Deah, Number 363:1, “It is improper to engage in any irreverent acts at the cemetery . . . such as eating or drinking.” For whatever reason this custom may have arisen, in disregard of the law, its continuance can have no justification in our day and is an offense against our sense of propriety. Whosoever among us has the opportunity to exert an influence on such an occasion should regard it as a duty to help abolish this grotesque and bizarre practice.
Let it not be assumed that funeral directors will accept proposals such as those of the Springfield congregation without challenge. Local experience has been that the legal counsel for the funeral directors threatened a suit claiming “restraint of trade.” But distinguished jurists throughout New England have made it clear that it is not only the right of the synagogue to demand compliance with religious requirements, but their duty to do so. And when a report of what had transpired in Springfield was made to synagogue leaders at a meeting considering the problem of raising standards in regard to weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and burials at the 1961 United Synagogue National Convention (at which much discussion and the citing of local prob lems and progress by the delegates took place), the official publication of the funeral industry, Casket and Sunnyside, for March, 1962, included an article (replete with errors) titled “Synagogues are Seeking Control of Burials.” The sub-title read: ‘Proposal Adopted for Study by Conservative Rabbis Would Take the Decisions on a Funeral out of the Hands of the Family. Synagogues Would Be Advised to Set up Mortuaries Where the Funeral Directors of a Community Refused to Go Along. Counter-Measures Are Being Taken by the Jewish Funeral Directors of America.”
This article referred to an open letter which was sent to Springfield Jewry by the local undertaker during the attempt to introduce the above-mentioned eight standards in that community. That letter contains the following:
We are not going to allow ourselves to be forced to reduce our services, or the manner of serving the public, under…threat of preventing families from calling us or making arrangements of their own free choice…[The Conservative Movement, as reported at the United Synagogue Convention, is] attempting to care for your loved ones according to their own dictates, leaving your family no alternative but to leave them as sole arbiters to what kind of a funeral shall be had. Would you allow such restrictions to apply to your every day living-to your purchase of homes, furnishings, clothing, automobiles and the other necessities in everyone’s life?….
The funeral industry was evidently so alarmed by the Springfield proposal and the United Synagogue meeting (albeit incorrectly reported by them), that it editorialized in the same issue of Casket and Sunnyside. This editorial deserves to be quoted at length and studied with care as a document which inadvertently reveals the crass commercialism with which we must contend.
The vast importance of good clergy relations is strongly empha sized in a new threat to funeral service which, if it finds fertile soil, will make the danger imposed by the memorial societies puny by comparison.
A resolution, which has been received for study by the United Conservative Synagogues of America and is to be considered by the rabbis when they meet again in May, would take the whole conduct of a funeral out of the hands of the funeral director.
If this resolution were to be adopted and gain the firm support of the mass of Conservative rabbis, the latter would be in complete control of all funerals of their members. They would deal or they would have their congregation deal only with the funeral homes which went along with this plan of austerity…. While it is possible that this means of annihilation for the Jewish funeral business may have been suggested by a very small group of rabbis, already it is more than an idle threat. It actually is being put into practice in such smaller cities as Springfield, Mass., and it is being urged in such big centers of population as Philadelphia and Chicago.
This attempt by the church to force dictation of funeral service from the top down is far more than just a threat to one particular branch of funeral service. Numerous individual Protestant Churches either have endorsed the memorial society movement or at least have advocated very inexpensive funerals. This attitude also has met favor in certain portions of the Catholic Church.
Thus, it would not be surprising if one or more of the great church bodies in the Christian faith adopted or attempted to adopt such a resolution. Then the fat would really be in the fire.
The Jewish Funeral Directors of America, through its board of governors, has appointed a committee to find out just who is responsible for the resolution among the Conservative rabbis, what their gripes really are and what can be done to improve clergy relations and thus maintain the status quo of Jewish funerals.
Such a danger is not far away from your door. It could threaten you if other churches really get on the band wagon…
Actually, this is much deeper than any matter of conflict be tween the ministry and the way in which funeral services are being conducted. It is a direct attempt of the various elements in the church to encroach on human freedom. Contrary to the ways of the American democracy, (These and the following italics in this article are mine.-S. H. D.) in which people can decide how they will bury their dead as well as all other aspects of their personal life, this is a direct attempt of the church to dictate funerals, stripping away from bereaved families the right of any free choice.
In its way it is as bureaucratic and sinister as anything to be found in the lands where the light of freedom has vanished….
It simmers down to this: Shall control of funeral service be left to the dictatorial orders of the uninformed or self-seeking members of the clergy? Or shall the American people have the right to bury their dead with dignity and after their own conscience in keeping with their financial needs? What you do in your community in influencing your own clergymen will play an important role in determining this…
The well-organized public relations machinery of the American funeral directors is here seen in action. “Synagogues are seeking control of burials”! Indeed, when did Jewish law, which the synagogue represents, not control burials, along with weddings, prayers, and whatever else relates to the spiritual life of the Jew? Is this some horrible phantom threatening the sacrosanct prerogative of individual choice on the part of the family? Is it not, in fact, a sane and sanctified means of halting the present abuse of grief-stricken mourners? To protect the mourner in his time of grief is the age-old pre rogative of the religion of Israel, which surrounds the entire period of mourning with that mariner of religious law which guides the mourner safely and comfortingly to his duty: first by relieving him of responsibilities in funeral matters and, secondly, by showing him how to walk the path of shivah and kaddish. How to mourn for the dead is one of the supreme contributions of the Jewish religion.
Over long centuries of concern, the wise laws of burial and mourn ing were evolved. Our people did not squander its genius in ruling empires or training armies; it spent its time in learning how to live with ones’ fellow man, how to raise a child, how to mourn for a mother. Visit your local municipal library and you will find that about 10 per cent of the books there deal with the general category of “how to live,” whereas a Jewish library contains 90 per cent of such books. We cannot invent new religious rites overnight. The twentieth century may have produced experts in technical civilization, but it has yet to produce a saint! The laws of burial and mourning took centuries to develop, and were developed by men wiser and more saintly than we. Can we simply enter the funeral parlor in a moment of grief and create a new pattern of observance?
“Socialism” is the word which could next be expected to be hurled forth by the funeral directors’ magazine. The holy right of the family to purchase a casket is raised to the highest echelon by the undertakers, and with good reason. Free enterprise, democracy, the rights of the individual are all trotted forth in an effort to expand the breach in the wall of Jewish tradition which has acted as guardian and protector of the mourner, freeing him from the ugly procedure of making commercial arrangements at a time when his rational capacities are at a minimum and the need to abide by “con vention” can easily be stimulated. This breach should be healed by the lay and rabbinic leaders of the synagogue and the Jewish community, restoring that wall of protection and solace to the Jewish mourner which has ever been one of the glories of Jewish tradition.
Belonging to any society implies obeying its laws, which are made for the welfare of all. The United States has laws. You may not drive through a red light, nor evade your taxes, because you are a citizen and bound by the laws of the land. Judaism too has laws and traditions. In our private religious lives we are free to observe or not to observe, for example, the Sabbath or the dietary laws. The Synagogue may only urge us to do so. Our public religious lives, however, are another matter. A wedding, a bris, a synagogue service, a funeral-these are public religious functions over which the Jewish clergy preside. No father may request that the Torah not be read at the Sabbath service at which his son is becoming Bar Mitzvah. No groom may insist that one of the Seven Blessings of the wedding service be omitted. Similarly, neither the undertaker nor the misguided family has the right to interfere with the spirit or the letter of the Jewish funeral tradition. And the Synagogue must refuse to be a party to such interference.
Freedom of choice, furthermore, is itself affected by choice. For once one chooses to accept the privileges of being a Jew, he must at the very same time accept the obligations as well. Thus, if one wishes to be married as a Jew, then that marriage must be in accordance with Jewish tradition, and if one wishes to be buried as a Jew, it must likewise be in accordance with Jewish tradition.
The undertaker, in objecting to the authority of Jewish law and tradition in funeral matters, claims he is safeguarding the “free choice” of the mourning family. Is he? The truth is that very little freedom is involved in decisions made under such trying circumstances. It is Jewish tradition that protects the rights of the mourner against those who would manipulate grief to their own advantage.
Let me cite an example. A young man loses his mother. He loves her dearly, and his loss is overwhelming. How does he express his grief? “Nothing is too good for my mother!” he declares. He purchases a lavish casket and wreaths of flowers which are beyond his means-against Jewish tradition, which teaches simplicity and equality in death; he agrees to visitation hours in the funeral chapel for several days, with his mother’s body on display-against Jewish tradition, which teaches that the face of the dead should be covered and that the funeral should take place as soon as possible; and he buys a cement vault so that the casket will remain intact-against Jewish tradition, which prohibits any means of mummification and requires a simple wooden casket so that the body may return to the earth from whence it came, as quickly as possible-“Dust thou art, and unto the dust shalt thou return.”
He does these things because they are what he has seen others do, because only these things may have been suggested to him, and he wants to be a good son.
How different when there is a Hevra Kaddisha-the Holy Brotherhood which should serve each community and congregation-to be of help. For it is their duty to aid the mourner in time of grief, to be available to him when tragedy strikes and to offer that consolation and guidance which the millennial wisdom of our people has accumulated over the centuries-to be a brother. Surely this precious mitzvah cannot be relegated to purely commercial interests.
The Hevra Kaddisha would explain to such a young man the mourning customs and the reasons for the simplicity and equality of the Jewish burial ritual. (The funeral laws of simplicity are summarized in the classic code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Aruch (Yoreh Deah #362): “We do not bury the dead in lavish fashion, even a prince in Israel.” The commentary of Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir HaCohen (SHAKH) explains: “For the preservation of the social order, since it would shame the poor who are not able to do likewise, give rise to the pride of ostentation, and cause unnecessary waste of means and substance.” Maimonides, giving similar reasons in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Mourning, Chapt. 4), adds “not to imitate gentile practice.”) They would offer their help in making funeral arrangements. They would tell him that the Torah teaches us to express love and grief for a mother, not through wasteful display, but in giving charity and doing good deeds in her memory, in fulfilling the laws of mourning and in faithfully reciting the kaddish. They would arrange for a minyan during the shiva and guide him in the trusted ways of Jewish faith.
Jewish law decrees that between the period of death and burial, the mourner is an onan-that is, spiritually and mentally so distraught that he is encouraged not even to recite his prayers or perform any positive mitzvah. How much the less can he engage in commercial arrangements!
“Nothing is more distasteful than to have to bargain in a moment of sorrow, as friends of ours had to do,” a congregant of mine wrote to me. “As you know, my wife’s mother passed away lately. The congregation to which our parents belong has the rules you aim to establish. We had nothing to do with the arrangements. Everything was taken care of by the Hevra Kaddisha, which spared us much embarrassment.”
The need for controls to tame “freedoms” that have blossomed into license and nonsense was reported in Time Magazine of December 7: “About $10 will send the French workingman to his maker in a dignified but austere manner; a minimum of $1,500 gives eminent members of the bourgeoisie a church bedecked inside and out with black silk draperies embossed with the initials of the deceased, plus a chorus of 30 voices accompanied by harps, trumpets, violins and cellos, and an elaborately carved casket resting on an ornate catafalque built especially for the occasion. And do not ask for whom the bells toll; they toll for first-class funerals.
“Last week [Maurice Cardinal Feltin, Archbishop of Paris] decreed that, beginning January 1, Paris churches will offer only one class of funeral . . . and all for free. ‘For many people, we are men of money,’ said the cardinal. ‘We must discredit this notion. We shall invite the faithful to forget the useless pomp and ceremony of the past and to accept evangelical simplicity. Indeed, death does remind us of our fundamental equality before God.”
Apparently few American Jews have any notion of the historic Jewish attitudes toward death and burial. We have always had the Hevra Kaddisha (Holy Brotherhood), composed of the leading Jews of the community, who consider it a mitzvah to be able to help arrange for the burial of a fellow I. The rabbis spoke of this particular mitzvah as a “truly good deed,” since it is a kindness for which no one ever expects to be rewarded. In Eastern Europe, the funeral hall, owned by the community, was usually located on the cemetery grounds. Here the brief service was held and eulogy delivered, after which the entire gathering observed the mitzvah of levayah, accompanying the body to its final resting place. There they laid the casket in the grave and each man in turn helped to replace the earth.
The Hevra Kaddisha functioned not only in Eastern Europe but in liberal communities of twentieth-century Germany, for example, as well. Thus the administration of funerals and burials was always considered the holy responsibility of the Jewish community, under whose supervision no abuse could arise. Indeed, the element of “business” or “commercialization” which plagues us today was almost totally disassociated from this area of religious responsibility.
Rabbi I. Epstein, former head of Jews College of London, describes the manner in which Jews from time immemorial have met death.
This same faith which is kindled in the soul of the Jew from his earliest childhood accompanies him throughout his life until his last days on earth. To declare with his last breath this faith and to close his eyes with the proclamation of the Shema is the dying wish of every Jew. Those present at the time of death bow in submission to divine judgment by pronouncing “Blessed be the Judge of Truth,” and as a token of mourning rend the top part of their upper garment. For the last ministration no minister is necessary; the idea of ministrations to the dead as part of the ministerial vocation is in fact strange to Judaism. In every community there exists a special society Chebra Kaddisha (Holy Brotherhood) to attend to all the requirements of the dead-washing the body, preparing the shrouds, etc. A Jewish funeral is marked by its simplicity, all differences between rich and poor being eschewed in this respect. The shrouded body is placed in the coffin wrapped in a Tallith, and the head is laid to rest on earth specially brought from the Holy Land. Jewish law does not approve of cremation, as not being in consonance with the respect due to the body which was once the abode of the divine soul. The essential feature of the burial service is the declaration in a selection of biblical verses of the Justice of God (Zidduk ha-Din), and the recital by the son, or by the daughter in the absence of a son or other near relative, of the Kaddish, which is a prayer for the glorification of God and the coming of His Kingdom, when the reign of death shall be over and life eternal shall be estab lished. For seven days after the funeral the nearest of kin remain in the house in mourning, and in order to enable the son (or sons) to say Kaddish, services are held in the house; and for eleven months the son is to attend public worship at each of the daily services to recite the Kaddish. (Isadore Epstein, Judaism (London: Epworth Press, 1939), pp. 59-61.)
In contrast to the way in which the family and the responsible Jewish community, upheld by the strength and consolation of their faith, have experienced death-ministering the last rites, attending to the burial, and mourning, first at home and later in the synagogue in the open acknowledgement of the fact of death-the twentieth century has sought to play down such frankness. Thus a distinguished sociologist writes:
In the twentieth century there seems to have been an unremarked shift in prudery; whereas copulation has become more and more “mentionable,” particularly in Anglo-Saxon societies, death has become more and more “unmentionable” as a natural process. I cannot recollect a novel or play of the last twenty years or so which has a “deathbed scene” that describes in any detail the death “from natural causes” of a major character….
While natural death became more and more smothered in prudery, violent death has played an ever growing part in the fantasies offered to mass audiences-detective stories, thrillers, Westerns, war stories, spy stories, science fiction and, eventually, horror comics….
Nevertheless, people have to come to terms with the basic facts of birth, copulation, and death, and somehow accept their implications; if social prudery prevents this being done in an open and dignified fashion, then it will be done surreptitiously. If we dislike the modern pornography of death, then we must give back to death-natural death-its parade and publicity, readmit grief and mourning. If we make death unmentionable in polite society-“not before the children”-we almost insure the continuation of the “horror comic.” No censorship has ever been really effective. (Geoffrey Gorer, “The Pornography of Death,” Identity and Anxiety (Glencoe, Free Press, 1960), pp. 405-7)
How different and how sane has been-and still is, to some extent-the traditional manner of Jewish mourning! An American rabbi describes a typical scene of true consolation which takes place hundreds of times every day in the Jewish communities, large and small. in every part of the world.
It is an early weekday morn. A quiet residential street of the dynamic city is still enveloped in a drowsy stillness. Soon life will awake in its silent and comfortable houses and noisy children, after a hasty breakfast, will leap through doors, schoolward bound. Men can be seen entering one of the houses. Their bear ing is marked by reverence and solemnity. Sorrow has recently visited one of the homes on the street and friends are gathering for the mourning service. Within the residence, candles are lit, tefillin and talesim are quietly donned and the voice of prayer is heard in the hushed atmosphere.
Long ago a people developed this practice so rich in meaning that neither the passing of centuries nor the roaring life of a metropolitan center has been able to render it obsolete. The friends are no longer individuals come to express sympathy, each in his particular way, with the feeling that the degree of his own friendship with the mourners dictates. The individuals have merged into a “minyan,” a congregation. They have coalesced into an “eidah,” a community. Though this community is small in numbers, it represents in every religious detail the larger K’laI Yisroel of which each identified Jew is part. Thus does a community symbolically and actually share in the sorrow of one of its members. The grief of the individual re-echoes in the life of the group. No Jew stands alone in his bereavement, while his personal anguish serves as a wall between him and all those upon whose way in life the dark shadow has not fallen. A people closes ranks and encircles its stricken member with the warmth of brotherly sympathy.
The religious service of this little group, representing the larger community, takes place in the home. It is a tribute to the central position of the home. Where a family lives and loves and fashions the most intimate bonds to link persons one to the other-you have a sanctuary appropriate for worship. For the home is a sanctuary no less than the Synagogue. Its holiness is of no lesser kind than that with which the formal house of prayer of the entire community is invested. The poignancy and sanctity of grief are best expressed in the intimate sanctuary of the home. The sanctuary of the home can never be replaced by Synagogue or Temple, however large or magnificent.
The prayer is concluded. The imperatives of modern living compel the minyan to dissolve once again into its component individuals who hurry through streets, now filled with romping and laughing children and speeding automobiles, to offices, shops and plants. The mourners remain. They are, however, no longer completely alone. In the atmosphere of their home the prayers linger and bespeak the solace of a tradition and the brotherhood of a community. (Morris Adler, “We Do Not Stand Alone,” A Treasury of Comfort, ed. by S. Greenberg (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1954), p. 133-4.)
Approval of the simple, homely but dignified rites of traditional Judaism is acknowledged by an outstanding student of the psychology of religion who sees in the so-called modern liberal approach to death which his own Reform temple symbolized a mistaken rejection of one of the wisest ways of his traditional brothers. In Peace of Mind) Joshua Loth Liebman writes:
The discoveries of psychiatry-of how essential it is to express rather than to repress grief, to talk about one’s loss with friends and companions, to move step by step from inactivity to activity again-remind us that the ancient teachers of Judaism often had an intuitive wisdom about human nature and its needs which our more sophisticated and liberal age has forgotten. Traditional Judaism, as a matter of fact, had the wisdom to devise almost all of the procedures for healthy-minded grief which the contemporary psychologist counsels, although Judaism naturally did not possess the tools for scientific experiment and systematic case study, nor did it always understand, as we can now, the underlying reason for its procedures. The Bible records how open and unashamed was the expression of sorrow on the part of Abraham and Jacob and David. Our ancestors publicly wept, wore sackcloth, tore their garments and fasted. In rabbinic literature we read that “The time of mourning is divided into four periods. The first three days are given to weeping and lamenta tion; the deceased is eulogized up to the seventh day, the mourner keeping within the house; the somber garb of mourning is worn up to the thirtieth day, and personal adornment is neglected. In the case of mourning for a parent, the pursuit of amusement and entertainment is abandoned up to the end of the year. . .”
On returning from the burial, shiva commences-the seven days during which the mourner is confined to the house in which he sits on the floor or on a low bench, devoting his time to the reading of the Book of Job. The first meal after the funeral is prepared by a neighbor and is called “the meal of consolation.” Friends and neighbors and relatives come to visit the mourner, and the conversation is limited to the praises of the deceased.
The ancient Jews thus arranged for the expression of grief and stimulated that expression by ordaining wailing, the tearing of the garment, the repetition of the tearstained pages of the Bible-the creation of an unashamed atmosphere of sorrow. Furthermore, the rabbis prescribed that the conversation in the house of mourning should revolve around the dead person, thus providing the mourner an opportunity to articulate his sense of loss. In the famous ethical work “The Sayings of the Fathers,” we come across the advice of one of the great rabbinic sages, Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazer, who said, “Seek not to comfort thy neighbor while his dead still lies before him. . . .” Note, further-more, how traditional Judaism arranged a kind of hierarchical order in the process of mourning: the first days after the burial being the period of most intense mourning, with a gradual tapering off of that intensity of grief, by well-arranged time steps-seven days, thirty days, one year.
Where traditional Judaism was psychologically sound in its approach to death, much liberal religion has been unsound. We moderns have assimilated from our environment a sense of shame about emotionalism and a disinclination to face the tragic realities of life, both leading to unwise repression and emotional evasion. Liberal rabbis and liberal ministers alike are continually committing psychological fallacies. They arrange funerals in such a way as to make death itself almost an illusion. Often the ritual itself is planned in such a way as to prevent tears, emotional outburst, and “undignified scenes.” Even at the grave, the conspiracy of illusion is maintained. The coffin is hidden beneath a blanket of flowers and the brown earth is concealed by an artificial carpet of green. AII this is done, no doubt, with the best of intentions, with the desire of sparing the feelings and of shielding the bereaved from possible paroxysms of grief. The same noble motive animates the friends and relatives of the mourners when they attempt to distract attention from the poignant loss, employing all kinds of conversational devices to divert the mind of the bereaved. Startling though it may seem at first, all this is wrong. It proceeds on the assumption that men should not give in to themselves; that indulgence in emotion is harmful; that the bereaved must be protected against despairing thoughts; that the tragic realities of life should be glossed over and avoided. This approach is a reflection of our whole twentieth century’s suspicion of emotion, when the expression of honest feeling has become so taboo. (Joshua Liebman, Peace Of Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.,1946), pp.122-4).
The wisdom of the traditional attitude of Judaism to death is attested to not only by ancient sages but by modern social scientists as well. This precious insight into the nature of mourning which the Fathers and rabbis of Israel perceived, which was embodied in the living fabric of our people for centuries and which has helped them to meet tragedy, personal and communal, in every country and clime, is now in danger of dissolution. For the fact is that in the chaos of American Jewish life, almost for the first time in two thousand years, many of the noble standards of the Jewish funeral have been neglected.
In an article which appeared in Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Moshe Goldblum, one of the few American rabbis who has tackled the problem successfully in his community, sums up the challenge and points toward a solution.
It has always been the desire of Jewish tradition to keep the arrangements for burial as simple as possible. The desire for equality in death stems from Tannaitic times with Rabban Gamaliel setting a personal example in asking that his funeral be of the simplest type. Jewish law has circumscribed the usages of the Jewish people regarding burial from that time to our own day. The individual did not feel that he has the personal right to deviate from the norms set down by Jewish tradition. A” responsibility for the details was left in the hands of the Hevra Kaddisha, established by the congregation or community (Kehillah), and the individual bad no right to decide himself as to how the ceremonies were to proceed.
With the breakdown of the Kehilla system, there was a release from the discipline of Jewish corporate life. The exodus from ghetto living and the relatively sudden transition to the modern world, gave the individual Jew a feeling that he no longer had to accept the dictates of Jewish tradition. He could decide for himself as to how he should regulate his religious life. The deviations from the traditional norms are well known, and most likely are more clearly evidenced in the customs of death rather than in life. The Jews of America, whose experiments in organizing a Kehillah system always ended in failure, were especially individualistic in deciding what was proper or improper at a Jewish funeral ceremony. The arrangements became more lavish, and many non-Jewish customs became the order of the day.
Jewish burial societies were organized in America, and for a period did bring a semblance of uniformity to the customs used in burial. However, these societies were not able to elicit the loyalty of the younger generation, nor could they demand a rigid adherence to the customs of the society. It has now become the regular procedure for a family to use any financial assistance forthcoming from the society as a down-payment for more lavish arrangements which they provide for on their own. The equality and the simplicity in Jewish death has almost totally disappeared, for each family feels that they are being held responsible as individuals for final arrangements. They know that a more expensive casket cannot give greater comfort to the dead. The luxurious casket is purchased to give the living the comfort so that friends and relatives will have no grounds to criticize them for their apparent lack of concern for the dead. The Kehillah and Jewish law are no longer considered strong enough to accept the responsibility for burial arrangements.
There is only one organization in American Jewish life which is sufficiently strong enough to demand the loyalty and respect from the individual Jew. To re-introduce Jewish tradition in American Jewish burial practice will demand the guiding and yet demanding hand of the synagogue. Many American syna gogues have completely divorced this aspect of Jewish life from their field of responsibility. This area belongs to the funeral director and the synagogue merely supplies the rabbi to officiate at the proper time. Other synagogues have accepted the total responsibility, and the leadership has asserted itself sufficiently to bring order out of chaos, tradition and equality where abuse once held sway.
No one can be certain of success; nor is there a foolproof formula for beauty; no man can be sure of marital happiness; nor is there any guarantee for health. But of one thing each and every one of us can be certain-that one day we will die! Death knows no favoritism. It visits kings and beggars, black and white, Jew and gentile. Death is the great leveler.
Jewish tradition, through the laws of burial, made of this fact a powerful lesson in living. Though inequality may prevail during our lifetime, where greed divides even brothers, in death, when we stand before the mystery of God, we are reminded once again of the final truth. Wisely does the Talmud note that man comes into the world with clenched fists, to seize and clutch, but when he leaves the world his hands are open, as if to mock his search for gain and glory. “If the will of a wealthy man orders that he is to be dressed in silk for burial,” states the Jewish law, “we ignore it.”
The solemn equality of the Jewish burial ritual which embraces rich and poor alike has stood as a sanctuary of simplicity and as a school for compassion down through the centuries. It is this sanctuary, in which Israel gathered each time sorrow befell them and in which they were reminded each time that every man is God’s image, that now for the first time in our long history has been defiled. It is this school which has ever taught us the gentle lessons of communal mercy and the duties of holy brotherhood, whose doors now for the first time in centuries have been bolted.
Only this generation of Israel has permitted commercial interests to assume synagogue responsibilities and to manipulate the mourner’s grief into an occasion for pagan rites. Is it not enough that all our lives we compete with each other with our cars, our furs, our homes and our clubs? Must we compete even in death?
Who is to blame for the present deplorable situation?
Surely not the mourner, who is the innocent victim of conditions difficult for him to control. Nor, indeed, the undertaker, who often makes an earnest effort to provide the best funeral appurtenances and services that seem in vogue today, and who is, after all, a businessman applying business methods to an area where sales resistance is at a minimum and temptation, therefore, at a maximum.
The fault lies with the synagogue leaders-rabbinic and lay-who have tolerated an intolerable situation and abdicated their age-old responsibility! (One exception is the Cemetery Rules and Regulations of Temple Beth-El, Lancaster, Pennsylvania):
Religion. The deceased must be of Jewish faith.
Time. The funeral should take place as soon as possible after death occurs.
Sabbath. When a death occurs on the Sabbath, the body should not be removed until after the Sabbath has ended.
Shrouds. Persons to be buried are to wear shrouds in accordance with Jew ish tradition.
Holy Society. The body shall be prepared by a recognized Holy Society (Hevra Kaddisha).
Shomer. The body shall, in accordance with Holy Law, be attended at all times by not less than one attendant.
Flowers. Jewish tradition frowns upon the use of flowers to conceal the reality of death. Jewish Law advocates that no flowers be sent to the funeral services conducted under the auspices of the Temple or involving our members.
The Temple realizes that friends may wish to show their respect for the deceased and therefore advises that their donations be given to some worthy charity, e.g., Prayer Book Fund, etc.
Embalming. Jewish Law is opposed to embalming. In certain specific situ ations, however, when a body must be held over for a designated period of time, embalming is provided for by the law of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Casket. The casket shall be one of wood of simple design as recommended by the Cemetery and Religious Committees.
Viewing. The casket must remain closed during services.
Funeral Director. The Cemetery Committee of the Congregation shall inform the Funeral Director of his duties in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Arbiter. The Rabbi and the Cemetery Committee shall be the final arbiter of any unforeseen circumstances that may arise.
Costs. The prices of graves shall be the same for all members. A charge for each funeral will be made by the Temple to cover exact costs of the following: Hevra Kaddisha, Shrouds, Shammash, Opening of grave, etc.
The tragedy is all the greater because this is perhaps the one area in Jewish life where Jewish tradition (alas, even superstition) happens to be almost universally respected.
This is a common concern to all synagogues. All branches of Jewry are united in their dissatisfaction with the current situation. Under proper guidance every community could correct this unfortunate abuse. The Springfield proposal is only one possibility. The re-establishment of communal non-profit funeral parlors should be the central goal for all. The total solution to this pressing problem will not be achieved until once again the Jewish community at large, or a group of synagogues, assumes total responsibility for burials on a non-profit basis as has been our age-old custom. This will provide for that decommercialization which has always characterized the Jewish funeral, and will succeed in raising it to the level of a mitzvah, a service of God.
Let me sum up with four basic proposals to the American Synagogue:
- Reassertion by the Synagogue of its authority and the authority of Jewish law and tradition in all matters dealing with burial and mourning.
- Establishment of an ongoing educational program directed to members of the congregation to acquaint them with what Jewish law and tradition teaches regarding burial and mourning, and their relevance today.
- Drawing up a code of funeral practice which would apply to all members of the congregation or those to be buried in the congregation cemetery.
- The establishment (especially in large communities) of communal non-profit funeral establishments, preferably sponsored by all branches of American Jewry.
The chaos which characterized Jewish life in the past is slowly disappearing. A crystallization is now taking place on many levels: in the organization of Jewish community councils, the raising of the level of Jewish education, and, above all, in the emergence of the synagogue as the central institution of the Jewish community. It is high time that the synagogue took action in an area of life where Jews are helpless victims, re-establishing standards of burial and mourning in accordance with the law and spirit of Jewish tradition.