Archive for the ‘death’ Category

Honoring the death of a person who was difficult to love

– A combo memorial service / shiva minyan can help you do so

 A few months 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,” as I will call him, was a complicated persotombstonen, which is why I described my job, as the rabbi, to be “complicated.”

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.

 *   *   *

Before we explore what alternatives might work best in these types of situations, let’s first review what a “typical” series of events would be following the death of a beloved, when 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 thtexte 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.) While a shiva service itself usually takes just 40 or so minutes, it is essentially a daylong event, emotionally speaking. Folks almost never go to work during shiva, and many families feel obligated to have food on hand for those attending — even if it’s food that others have brought.
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 — so in other words, another half day spent.

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 $600 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, (and time, and emotional latitude.) 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 did not endear himself much to others.

But forget the money for a moment and just focus on the emotional costs. When the relationship was strained, you can’t help but ask yourself honestly whether you want to invest 10 or 20 hours of your life memorializing someone who, despite their kinship, caused you unmitigated 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.

And that also doesn’t mean you want to do nothing at all, either.

After all, a memorial event, however it is done, is done for the living, not for the dead. So, more than anything else, the event needs to meet the needs of those who are left behind. In the case of this family, the many layered, time-consuming, and expensive Jewish traditions 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. Of course it couldn’t have been repaired by any means, because the man who died was himself too broken of a person, but having the window close of even an imaginary opportunity is its own sort of terrible finality. You, the survivor, is left with the shards of this broken vessel, and a memorial service, done the right way, can be your own first step to making peace with that fact.

Fortunately for me, Andy’s surviving children and spouses were an incredibly wise bunch. While they didn’t know exactly what they wanted as far as a formal ceremony or event marking Andy’s passing, they had figured out — intuitively really — that doing the traditional Jewish funeral rites was not what they needed. It would have been, pardon the expression, overkill. But they intuited that they needed to come together in some manner as a family, and in some way mark the passing of this person who had, for better and worse, made such an enormous impact on their lives.

After speaking at length with one of Andy’s daughters, and learning the details of their story, we concluded that having a modest, in-home memorial service with just immediate family members would be the best way to help them do that. 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 and grandfather.

It was almost like building a new foundation out of the rubble: By making peace with the brokenness, they could then move forward in their own unbroken lives and relationships with each other.

 *   *   *

Combined Home Memorial  / Shiva Minyan Service

(in lieu of the traditional memorial service at funeral home /
ide service / and then shiva minyan)

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 relativmosaices 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.)

Our 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: After group recitation of the Shema, service-leader reads a brief writing from Chaim Stern.

Mourner #1: Reads an English rendition of Ma’ariv Aravim.

Everyone: Recites the Shema together.

Mourner #2: Reads 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 psalmnatureAmidah. 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. (We all knew that these thoughts did not reflect the larger arc of his life, but that was okay. It was an act of love, really — one final unrequited gift that they gave him — by choosing to focus only on the positive and the joyous.)

Mourner #3: The circle closed with a recitation of the poem by Albert Fine: “Birth is a Beginning, Death is a Destination.” (The poem had been suggested by one of the daughters; she had heard it at another funeral and liked it.)

Rabbi: Sings/Chants El Malei Rachamim – a chanted prayer of mourning filled with beautiful allegory whereby the petitioners 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.

 *   *   *

Shavuot: Let's keep it the harvest holiday it was originally meant to be!

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. In total, the service lasted about 40 minutes.

Every death is different, and the needs of every family of mourners is always different. The service outlined above, for example, assumes that those attending have a basic understanding of core Jewish liturgy, and that the mourners are in favor of references to God in Hebrew. What the right service might be for your family could look very different.

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 am an ordained rabbi with formal training all across the non-Orthodox spectrum: Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Secular-Humanist. (I’ve been a quintessential “Wandering Jew” in my learning and life; hence the name of this blog! 🙂 ).

We can craft a ceremony that reflects your relationship with the deceased, however it might have been.

I’m not always checking my electronic devices, so if you have a time-sensitive inquiry for a funeral, a memorial service, or a shiva minyan, please text my cell and send me an email. I will be in touch as soon as I see one of the other. If possible, please give me a general sense of what day you either must or hope to have your gathering, and how much flexibility you have on that scheduling.

To reach me, please fill out the contact form found at SecularJewishFunerals.com

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If you have found this article, it is probably because you have just experienced the loss of a loved one and are trying to figure out “what to do next.” I am a rabbi living in Philadelphia’s Mainline and in addition to my work at a local congregation, I work with about 40+ unaffiliated families each year offering weddings or funerals.

In this blog post, I will let you know what the preparation process is like. While I sometimes officiate standard, or traditional, Jewish funerals, my largest clientele is families who are unaffiliated, have interfaith family dynamics, or who want a theistically secular funeral service. I will also give you some examples of specific prayers or readings that can be used in this type of ceremony.

Every funeral ritual is different: As an officiant, I try to match the liturgy and content with the beliefs and wishes of the deceased as well as the sentiments of his/her loved ones. Trying to do both is possible — it just takes some time, and some conversations, to figure it out.

Many Jewish funerals include two classic pieces of Jewish liturgy: the Mourner’s Kaddish and El Male Rachamim. But today, many people favor more contemporary readings on the issues of death and grief.  For an interfaith audience, a traditional reading from the Torah (such as Psalm 23 “The Lord is My Shephard I Shall Not Want …”) works well, and is recognizable to both Jews and Christians. OR, we can substitute biblical readings with selections that are less theistic in nature, such as an excerpt from the beautiful poem by Marge Piercy called The Seven of Pentacles.

We figure out what readings or liturgy are best to include, based on the conversations I have with immediate family members and friends.

During the memorial service, I love to include one to three guests who come up during the service and offer a few thoughts or memories about the loved one. We can also include an “open mic” of sorts, where we open up the floor to the guests for some impromptu memory-sharing.

I also love to include a short eulogy where I share highlights of the person’s life, her loves and interests, and what she will be most remembered for. Prior to my rabbinic life, I worked as a professional journalist for 20 years; this autobiographical information I glean from family members during interviews and write into a eulogy that I hope captures the spirit and life of the person who died.

So how, exactly, does all of this happen? The process for funeral service planning is the following:

1) An initial phone call to get acquainted and confirm the schedule.

2) If you live in the Mainline, an in-person meeting with one or two family members who knew the deceased really well. We will meet for about 1 hour in your home, and discuss what kind of service you would like, as well as share details about who the deceased was as a person.

3) If you live outside the Mainline, this planning meeting can be done via conference call.

4) Ask you to find out the deceased person’s Hebrew name. You might need to make calls to your extended family to find this out. It might also be recorded on a ketubah. A person’s Hebrew name is usually used during the memorial service.

5) Meet ½ an hour before the service begins to go over any final details or questions.

6) The service itself is usually held at the funeral home. If internment is going to take place, the service is usually followed by a much shorter graveside service, with just immediate family members attending.

If you are on a tight schedule planning your funeral, and wish to contact me, please send me an email, as well as a text. (I have several small children at home, so I’m not always deeply attuned to all of my technological gadgets!)

To contact me, please visit my website dedicated to Jewish funerals at SecularJewishFunerals.com and fill out the contact form.

May strength, comfort and peace be with you and your family in this difficult time.


Another article I wrote on this topic can be found here:



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