Honoring the death of a person who was difficult to love
- A combo memorial service / shiva minyan can help you do so
A few weeks ago, I had the complicated privilege of helping a family plan a memorial/shiva service for their father, who had died after a long illness, and after an even longer period of pain of estrangement from his four adult children, their spouses, and his grandchildren.
Andy was in his 80s and was hard to get along with, perhaps even abusive at times to his children. He played favorites in a way that the adult children had learned to cope with, but which had surely created much pain and heartache when they were younger and less mature. Andy had divorced his kids’ mother and she had no interest in attending any kind of memorial. None of the women he had dated since the divorce cared to attend any kind of service either. It appears he had no friends.
Jewish burial practices were clearly made with a different kind of person in mind. Jews and non-Jews alike, including the world of psychiatric research, has a great deal of admiration for the way Jewish tradition handles end-of-life mourning practices. People have written many books about the wisdom of Jewish mourning traditions, and how they seem designed to gradually lead the survivors through the stages of mourning, and eventually back into the world of the living.
I agree. They are brilliant. And I encourage Jews who never do more Jewishly in their lives than appear at Kol Nidre services to take the time to familiarize themselves with the Jewish ways of mourning when a loved one dies. Together, they betray a keen awareness of how we humans process loss, and how marking intervals of time over this mourning process with specific rituals and prayers can help us move through our grief.
I won’t go into the various elements now – you can read them many places. Rather, what I would like to talk about here are those deaths that we feel a need or desire to ritually acknowledge in some way, but for a variety of reasons, the Jewish script on how to do so doesn’t fit quite right.
• The death of someone who is very old, and thus leaves few survivors, is one whole category of cases where classical Jewish mourning practices don’t entirely make sense.
• The death of someone who was, essentially, a hard person to love, is another important category. This is the situation “Andy’s” family found themselves in.
In a “typical” death of a beloved, Jewish tradition kicks in with a set of clearly prescribed actions:
1. Call the funeral home.
2. Plan for either a burial or cremation.
(40% of Jews today are being cremated; it’s the hush-hush secret no on talks about.)
3. Schedule a date and plan on 100+ people coming to the funeral home for a service inside the funeral home.
4. A portion of those mourners will then drive to the graveside, where the rabbi will read a few more psalms or poems, and conclude with the mourner’s kaddish. The final act is the throwing of dirt on the casket or the urn that is being buried. You can assume steps 1-4 will take about 5 hours out of your day, much of it in travel time, since the funeral homes and the burial grounds are often located very far apart. In Philly, most of them are located in the far outskirts of the city.
5. Then comes shiva. Traditionally, it is 7 nights, but most families outside Orthodoxy observe only 1 or 2 nights. The rabbi who led the funeral usually leads the shiva as well, unless you have an educated friend or family member who can lead the service. (This is one way of saving some money, if that is an issue.)
6. Then, about 6 months after the death, immediate family members gather graveside for the unveiling of the tombstone. This is a brief ceremony, 15 minutes tops, but people often have lunch together afterward. Due to travel time, this often takes another 3-4 hours.
The average cost for all this (assuming a burial and not a cremation) is $35,000, according to national statistics. The rabbi makes a miniscule fraction of this sum, by the way. In Philadelphia, the fixed rate for a funeral is $545 for the rabbi; shiva minyans and tombstone unveilings are negotiated separately, and vary depending on travel time.
At the end of the day, this “whole big megilla” of a traditional Jewish burial is a whole lot of money. It’s especially a lot of money if you suspect few people will even attend the funeral, the graveside, or a shiva, either because the deceased had outlived his social circle, or because the deceased was that sort of person who was simply hard to love.
But put aside all financial considerations for a moment and just think about the emotional ones. Do you want to invest 10 or 15 hours of your life memorializing someone who, despite their kinship, caused you deep grief or heartache? How much time do you want to spend formally mourning a person who caused you to spend years of your life on a therapist’s couch?
I’m going to take a wild guess here and say: Probably not much.
But that also doesn’t mean you don’t want to do nothing at all, either.
A memorial service, however it is done, is for the living, not for the dead. So first and foremost, it needs to meet the needs of the immediate mourners. The many layered, time-consuming, expensive rituals usually done upon the death of a beloved was not what Andy’s family needed.
Although the death of a difficult family member, like Andy, is a different kind of loss than the death of someone close, but it is still very much a loss. Sometimes, quixotically, it can be an even harder loss because it can bring up all sorts of feels of regret, thoughts of “if only…” and “what if…”
The death of a person with whom you had a broken relationship means this relationship can NEVER be repaired. It likely couldn’t have been repaired by any means, because the man who died was himself too broken of a person, but the survivor is left with the shards of this broken vessel for the remainder of their days, and they need to make peace with it.
Having a brief, perhaps in-home memorial service with just immediate family members can be one way of helping them do that.
Andy’s surviving children and spouses were an incredibly wise bunch. They had already figured out, long before calling me, that doing the traditional Jewish funeral rites was not what they needed. It would have been, to put it bluntly, overkill. But they did instintively know that they needed to come together as a family, and in some way mark the passing of this person who had, for better and for worse, made such an enormous impact on their lives.
They were so right. So, working together, here is what we did. I think of it as a Jewish funeral/shiva combo. It was inexpensive; it was respectful; and it served its purpose of helping the mourners mark the loss of their father, that they might now move forward to this new phase in their lives.
A Combined Home Memorial / Shiva Minyan Service
(in lieu of the traditional memorial service at funeral home/graveside service/
and then shiva minyans)
Timing: Andy had died and been cremated about one month earlier. An in-home memorial was planned for a few weeks after his death to give relatives from out of town time to buy plane tickets at a reasonable price and prepare time off from work and school (in the case of the grandchildren).
Location: At the home of one of Andy’s daughters in the Mainline PA.
Time: Late morning or early afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday seemed to make the most sense. This minimized impact on their own work/school lives, while also making it possible to follow the home memorial with a meal together, which they had at a restaurant. (I led the service, but did not join them at the meal).
In Attendance: Four surviving daughters, their four spouses, and all but one of the grandchildren (the missing grandchild was in college and had only met his grandfather once, so in his case, it didn’t seem to make sense that he would incur the cost and headache of missed collegiate work.)
A Sample Service:
We sat in chairs in a circle in the living room, where we could all face each other.
Rabbi: I began with a favorite reading from Albert Einstein, where he reflects on the meaning of life. I concluded by saying:
“Thank you to all of you who have come here today, to stand in comfort and support of the Smith family, as they mourn the passage of their father, father-in-law and grandfather, Andy Smith. Please turn to page 4a.
Rise for the Shema
Rabbi: Read a brief writing from Chaim Stern
Volunteer Reader: Reads an English rendition of Ma’ariv Aravim
Everyone: Recite the Shema together
Volunteer Reader: Read an English rendition of V’ahavta
Rabbi: “There are times when each of us feels lost or alone, adrift and forsaken, unable to reach those next to us, or to be reached by them. And there are days and nights when existence seems to lack all purpose, and our lives seem brief sparks in an indifferent cosmos. Fear and loneliness enter into the soul. None of us is immune from doubt and fear; none escapes times when all seems dark and senseless. Then, the ebb-tide of the spirit, the soul cries out and reaches for companionship.”
Please turn to 13a as we rise and recite together the first three blessings of the Amidah. For the 15 remaining blessings, I invite you to recite them silently, or simply take this time for quiet personal reflection.
Group: Recites the Amidah (Also called “The Tefillah”)
Conclude the Amidah by singing together “Oseh Shalom”
Rabbi: Shares a reading from Marge Piercy
Rabbi: Shares some highlights from Andy Smith’s life: where he was born, raised, what kind of work he did. Mention his strengths and those things he did well in life.
Then open the circle to anyone else who would like to share some memories
Three members of the family shared some brief positive memories they had of Andy.
Volunteer Reader: The circle closed with a recitation of the poem by Albert Fine: “Death is a Beginning, Death is a Destination.” (The poem had been suggested by one of the daughters; she had heard it at other funerals and liked it.)
Rabbi: Sings/Chants El Malei Rachamim – a mournful prayer in which we ask that the soul of the departed carry on into the next world on the wings of angels.
Rabbi: Leads the concluding Mourner’s Kaddish.
* * *
This is just one of many ways a combined at-home memorial / shiva service can be conducted. The readings and content was selected after speaking with the family members. All in all, the service lasted about 40 minutes.
Every death is different. The needs of the mourners will be different for any family. To discuss what kind of service might meet the needs of your family, please give me a call. There is never any charge for a consultation, and if I feel I am not able to meet the needs of your family – for whatever reason – I am happy to help you find someone who will.
Every death, even the most difficult one, deserves to be honored and recognized in some way. Working together, we can make this happen for you. I have formal training across the non-Orthodox spectrum: Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Secular-Humanist. We can craft a ceremony that honors your theistic beliefs, and those of the deceased.
Please call both my numbers, and my email, if you are trying to schedule a memorial/shiva. I’m not always checking my electronic devices, so try all three. My name is Joysa and my numbers are 610-642-2420. Cell 267-902-7752. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org