There was a fascinating, if somewhat morbid, exhibition at Elizabeth Bay House in Sydney some years ago. It was called “The Victorian Way Of Death”, and despite the grave nature of the subject, I enjoyed my visit.
It made me ponder, as it was meant to do. And I also began to ponder about the Jewish way of death, and I realised there were certain condolence customs which have become widespread in this community, fashions which are sometimes inappropriate, and often un-Jewish and in many respects out of accord with our historic tradition with its simple, dignified, carefully arranged structure of symbolism and ritual.
There is, for instance, the tendency to be too talkative and to make a funeral or minyan into a social occasion. Of course talking relieves tension, but it should be with restraint and dignity.
It is not necessary, for instance, for people to crowd around the bereaved family either inside, or on the steps of the Chevra Kadisha building – whether to ensure that their presence has registered with the mourners, or for any other reason. Nor is it necessary to feel slighted if the mourners are too preoccupied for light conversation.
In time of bereavement, the right mood is one of reflection and quiet thoughtfulness when one’s sympathetic presence is eloquent enough in itself.
Those who have followed our tradition through the various stages of mourning will agree that it is a great pity that some – out of lack of knowledge or perhaps a mistaken desire to be modern – fail to do things in the authentic Jewish way.
Let me enumerate some significant procedures which, if rediscovered, would bring added dignity, greater spiritual content, and an authentically Jewish mode of expression into such occasions.
There is the law of k’riah which entails making a small cut, and then lengthening it into a tear, in one’s garment – on the left-hand side for a parent and the right-hand side for other relatives. Its symbolism is clear. It is carried out while standing: for a Jew must always stand up and face what life brings.
It is accompanied by a b’rachah acknowledging Dayan HaEmet (“the True Judge”), for a Jew acknowledges God’s wisdom and justice even when it is hardest to do so.
There is the s’udat havra’ah, the meal of consolation served by neighbours or friends to the mourners when they return from the funeral. This simple meal contains hard-boiled eggs, reminiscent of the wheel of life that never ceases to turn: for life brings its light and its shade, its joys and its sorrows.
There is the law concerning sitting shiva for seven days on low seats or even on the floor. During this first week of intense grief, a mourner stays home and finds solace in the quiet, comforting presence or relatives and friends, who join each day in the services held in the house.
The Australian fashion of having only a one-night minyan is no improvement on the week of shiva. Apart from anything else, it often means that the house is invaded by vast numbers on the first night; one moment the crowd is overwhelming – and then so often it is all over, and one is far from prepared to return to the unfeeling world outside.
When it comes to saying Kaddish there are also several comments which I must make. Among the prayers that every child learns they should also learn to read Kaddish. It has no mention of death; in its various forms it occurs throughout all our services, not just as a mourner’s prayer; and there is no reason deriving from superstition or anywhere else for a child not to be able to read Kaddish as they read the Shema, the bensching or Adon Olam. Since bereavement inevitably comes to all of us, this might help to prevent embarrassment when a mourner, who is already under such great strain, stumbles over unfamiliar phraseology, even if it is printed in English letters.
Kaddish should be said daily for eleven months. There is something quietly impressive and sacred about a person publicly remembering a loved one in the midst of the congregation day by day. The very fact of being one of the small fellowship who religiously attend daily services gives more spiritual strength than you can imagine. And on a Yahrzeit, the kindling of the memorial light and the attendance at the synagogue to say Kaddish is an act of filial loyalty that has immense personal and Jewish significance.
Let me comment on the attitude which some people have towards the Yizkor ceremony on festivals. Some make this an isolated act of religious observance, quite without relevance to the concerns of the rest of the year. If this is all that remains of some people’s Jewishness, one would not take it away from them. But many of us stand and watch, and wait and wonder, as the little exodus from the synagogue comes without fail after Yizkor.
What a pity Yizkor is not always accompanied by honouring a departed parent by means of keeping the commandments throughout the year.
We are a community that has an instinct for doing the right thing, especially in times of crisis and distress. But our good intentions are often spoilt through lack of knowledge, lack of dignity, lack of thoughtfulness, and lack of appreciation for the inspiration of our heritage, with its pattern of procedures that are sincere, dignified, thoughtful, discreet, restrained – and Jewish.