No matter how “expected” the death was – and all the more so when it wasn’t expected – a death leaves everyone in the family reeling with grief, and overwhelmed by all of the logistical choices that need to come next.
• How do you find a funeral home and a funeral officiant who can provide the right kind of Jewish funeral service (for your family?)
• How much time do you have to get everything done?
• What does the funeral-planning process look like?
I work with many unaffiliated Jewish families. Some are interfaith; others come from a strong atheist or Secular Humanist orientation. I will strive, in this blog article, to answer some of the most common questions I encounter working with these families.
Step One: Contact A Funeral Home
Your first task is finding a funeral home who will handle your loved one’s remains. Philadelphia has three Jewish funeral homes. I have worked with all three of them, and believe they all have solid reputations:
Goldstein’s Funeral Home
6410 North Broad St.
Philadelphia PA 19126
Joseph Levine & Sons Inc.
Trevose, PA 19053
West Laurel Hill Cemetery and Bringhurt Funeral Home
225 Belmont Ave.
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004
West Laurel is the newest company to join the Jewish funeral service profession. Last year, they designated a new Jewish area to their beautiful historic cemetery overlooking the Delaware River.
West Laurel is right off I-76, and hence is very close to Center City and the Mainline. West Laurel is also unique in that they offer full cremation services on site, and they inter cremated remains in the Jewish part of their cemetery.
What does the funeral home do? They will help you determine:
1) How you want your loved one’s remains handled.
2) The date and advertising of the burial and memorial service.
3) The date and advertising of any shiva minyas following the burial.
4) Refer you to a local rabbi or officiant who can provide the religious aspects of the service.
Take a Deep Breath
One factor that makes Jewish funeral planning so stressful is that there has been a long-standing tradition that bodies are buried within 24 hours after death. Given how far-flung people’s families are, trying to make such arrangements on such a tight schedule often creates a great deal of hardship—not to mention expense.
My advice, as someone who has worked with many families in this tough situation, is to be kind to yourself. Don’t make yourself miserable with the punctilious following of ancient rules. How many other Jewish “rules” do you follow? If your answer is “not many” — ask yourself why it is important to strictly follow this particular rule.
Should the burial of body or cremains happen within the first week after death? Yes, definitely. If it can happen without too much pain in the first few days after death – great, even better. But please, don’t add to the heartache of your family by taking on herculean efforts to accommodate this kind of rapid-fire schedule. Also, don’t plunge family members into debt because they had to go out and pay $1,000 for a rush-rate plane ticket.
Think about what works for you. Keep your mind open.
Step Two: Discuss the Pros and Cons of Burial vs. Cremation
Unless your loved one has left explicit directions on what she wants done with her remains, your family is left to make this difficult choice.
“Wait a minute!” You might be saying. “I thought Jews don’t cremate their dead!!?”
Well … that’s only partially true.
It is true that in the Torah (in the biblical era, circa 500 BCE) Jews favored burial. It’s worth pointing out, however, that they were living in an arid desert, so what other options did they really have? – Not many.
At later points in Jewish history, we have evidence that different communities handled their dead in different ways. Here are just a few examples:
• During the Second Temple period (c 35 CE), the dead were left exposed in underground caves. Once their bones disintegrated, they were ground up and put into ossuary containers.
• In the Mishnaic times (c 300 CE), in northwest Israel, bodies were left in above-ground tombs, in catabombs filled with tombs. Many famous authors of the Mishna were buried in this fashion.
• In Great Britain in the late 1800s, the Reform movement officially began permitting cremation, in part in response to the shortage of land available for burial on their landlocked island.
It’s the secret no one talks about, but did you know that 40 percent of Jews in metro Philadelphia are being cremated upon death – not buried!? The reasons are numerous.
• Cremation costs much less than a traditional burial.
• Some people are motivated by the environmental impact of burial, and believe cremation lessons the human “footprint” on the earth.
• Others simply feel that having their ashes spread in an ocean or dispersed in a forest is a more fitting way to end their life than to be entombed in a traditional cemetery.
I’m not here to tell you how you should feel. My job is to simply let you know what your options are. I also want you to know that there is nothing wrong with considering cremation – and there are rabbis out there who will support your decision!
The first place people turn when looking for a Jewish lifecycle officiant is to a congregational rabbi with whom they have some prior relationship. That’s a great idea and a great place to start.
Ask friends or neighbors if they can recommend a rabbi. Many rabbis work outside of congregations these days – as hospital chaplains, in nursing homes, at university Hillels. Ask around and see if you can get any referrals.
Or, turn to Google. That might very well be how you just found me and how you found this blog post. There is a growing number of “freelance rabbis” who service the unaffiliated. We indeed scrape together a living by getting called by people like you — Jews not members of established associations, but still seeking quality, informed rabbinic guidance during key moments in life (births, weddings, deaths.)
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org as well as 267-902-7752 to discuss your needs.