A Request to Omit the Funeral Service
I have a congregant who has asked that there be no funeral or memorial service upon his death. His brother feels, quite rightly in my view, that this would be hurting and insulting to many people who will be deeply aggrieved by the death and thus deprived of an opportunity to mourn, even if he does not wish to be honored. If he cannot be convinced, can we disregard the request in order to address the feelings of mourners? (Rabbi Richard Block, Cleveland, OH)
People often say that “funerals are for the living, not for the dead.” The statement conveys the idea that the rituals that accompany death and burial are intended primarily to aid us, the mourners and survivors, to process our grief, rather than to benefit the deceased, who can derive no “benefit” from these rites in any event. Were we to apply the theory behind this statement to our she’elah, our answer would be clear: the deceased has no right and no power to deny to his mourners the benefit (whether we understand that word in theological or therapeutic terms) that they would gain from a funeral service. But we are rabbis. We view questions like this through the lens of Jewish teaching and tradition. And when we consider this issue in a specifically Jewish context, the answer is not so clear at all. For one thing, our tradition teaches us that “it is a mitzvah to fulfill the wishes of the deceased,” and while the original context of that saying deals with financial matters, it does suggest to us a general moral obligation to keep faith with those who can no longer act on their own behalf. Moreover, we find that the traditional rules governing Jewish funeral rituals require that we carefully balance the legitimate wishes of both parties, the dead as well as the living.
“The Honor of the Living” and “The Honor of the Dead”. The Talmud addresses this question when it asks: “does the eulogy serve the honor of the living (yekara dechayei) or the honor of the dead (yekara deshakhvei)?” And as it frequently does, the Talmud follows this question with another question: lema’i nafka minah, “what practical difference does it make” whether the eulogy is for the dead or for the living? It suggests an answer: suppose an individual leaves instructions that no eulogy be delivered upon his death. If we say that the eulogy serves “the honor of the dead,” that its primary goal is to raise the estimation of the deceased in the eyes of the mourners, then he is entitled to forego the honor due to him. On the other hand, should we say that the eulogy comes to serve “the honor of the living,” that its purpose is to help the survivors mourn their loss or even to buttress their own reputation in the eyes of the community, then the deceased has no right to deny that honor, which is their due. The Talmud debates the question, citing various Biblical and Rabbinic texts as evidence one way or the other, before concluding that the eulogy comes “for the honor of the dead.” The halakhic authorities learn from this that we are to heed the instructions of one who says “do not recite a eulogy for me.” At the same time, those authorities rule that we do not heed the instructions of one who says “do not bury me when I die,” for burial of the dead is a religious obligation upon the mourners, an obligation from which the deceased cannot release them.
This distinction between rituals that serve the honor of the dead and those that serve the honor of their mourners is a reasonable one, particularly in that it helps us in drawing that sensitive balance between the legitimate demands of both parties. On the basis of this distinction, this Committee has suggested that a parent is not empowered to forbid his or her child from reciting Kaddish upon the parent’s death. Our reasoning was as follows:
(W)e recite Kaddish because it is the primary liturgical expression of traditional Jewish mourning. For us, it evokes the unbroken link of memory that binds every Jewish generation to its past. Its recitation is the way we declare our faith, even at the darkest moments of loss, in the eternity of Israel’s covenant with God, in the triumph of hope and “in the coming of the Divine kingdom.” … As such, this ritual indisputably serves “the honor of the living,” and the dead, according to the Talmudic principle, are not entitled to deny us the “honor” – we would prefer to say “responsibility” – of mourning as Jews. Thus, we recite Kaddish whether or not our loved ones request us to do so, or even if they forbid us from doing so after they are gone.
At the same time, the majority of the members of this Committee believe that the category of rituals performed for the sake of yekara deshakhvei, the honor of the dead, includes the funeral ceremony proper. That is to say, if our tradition empowers the deceased to refuse a eulogy, which is certainly the emotional climax of the funeral ceremony, it also affords him or her the right to ask that we not pronounce the rest of the funeral liturgy. The line that separates the rituals performed for “the honor of the dead” and “the honor of the living” should be burial itself. Just as the burial Kaddish is traditionally recited once the coffin has been covered with earth, so all the rituals of mourning that take place after burial – shiv`ah, sheloshim, yahrzeit, etc. – are to be considered as serving the needs of the living. The dying person cannot deny the mourners the opportunity to engage in those observances upon his or her death, even though he or she is entitled to instruct us to dispense with the funeral ceremonies that precede burial – i.e., the funeral liturgy and the eulogy.
We acknowledge that the line we have drawn is but a rule of thumb. It is not obvious that all rituals performed before burial are for “the honor of the dead” while those performed after burial pertain to “the honor of the living.” For example, in the responsum we have cited, our position contradicts that of some Orthodox authorities, who believe that the Kaddish itself is recited “for the honor of the dead” and that one may therefore instruct the mourners not to recite Kaddish on one’s behalf. We note as well that “(s)ome authorities take the view that all the rituals of avelut, including shiv`ah, sheloshim, etc., are ‘for the honor of the dead’ and that the dead may exempt the mourners from the obligation to observe these practices” and that “(o)thers disagree.” We learn from these disagreements that, while these traditional categories are appropriate ways to classify and to define our funeral and mourning rituals, the determination that any specific ritual is “for the honor of the dead” or “for the honor of the living” is dependent upon our perspective and is therefore likely to change over time.
This suggests that we are free to reevaluate the specific decisions of the past, the determinations of our predecessors that particular rituals fulfill one purpose or the other. As one member of our Committee puts it:
At what point does the changing meaning of the ritual inform our sense of “honor” and “obligation”? At what point does it bring to the fore another compelling religious concern? With respect to the hesped [eulogy], I think there can be an important therapeutic function served that should not be overlooked. (Indeed, much concerning the mitzvot and minhagim surrounding death, burial, and mourning are solid psychology. These are good and healthy things to do for the survivors when handled with care and sensitivity.) I have delivered a good many hespedim whose underlying purpose was to provide mourners with a framework for working out unresolved conflicts and issues, and building bridges back to other mourners now that the deceased (who kept them apart) was out of the picture, and so on. What is more, since the hesped is delivered publicly, others have heard it and remind the mourners of the message they heard.
Many, perhaps most of us, share these sentiments. If so, if even the eulogy can be conceived as serving “the honor of the living,” it is quite arguable that our Jewish tradition, as we liberal Jews would understand it, actually denies to the deceased the power to forbid his or her mourners from holding a funeral service.
Still, we do hold that “it is a mitzvah to fulfill the wishes of the deceased.” We pay an emotional price when we knowingly violate those wishes, and most of the members of this Committee are reluctant to counsel that they be ignored in their entirety. We therefore endorse the rule of thumb sketched above: the deceased is empowered to govern (and to prohibit) the rituals normally conducted prior to burial, and he or she does not wield that power over the rituals that take place after burial. To put this differently: the funeral serves the goal of kevod hamet (the honor of the dead), while at the conclusion of the funeral the emphasis shifts to nichum aveilim (comforting the mourners, i.e., “the honor of the living”). We think that if the rabbi teaches the structure of the Jewish funeral and mourning rites in this way, each party – the dying person and those who will mourn that person – are much more likely to understand both the limits of their prerogatives in the matter and the duty to consider the needs of the other.
Conclusion. It is unfortunate that this congregant and his family are embroiled in a disagreement that must be painful for both sides. Our hope is that the disagreement may be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction prior to his death. If that reconciliation does not occur, however, our recommendation is as follows:
- The mourners should honor the congregant’s request that no funeral service (including a eulogy) be held upon his death.
- The mourners are entitled to recite Kaddish at grave side as soon as the body is buried. They are also entitled to observe the rites of mourning such as shiv`ah and sheloshim that occur after the funeral. These would include the memorial service that takes place at the time of gravestone dedication (hakamat matzevah).
- A web search will reveal that the saying is ubiquitous, even if it is not attributable to an original author.
- See Ps. 115:17: “The dead do not praise God, nor do those who go down to silence.”
- Mitzvah lekayem divrei hamet; B. Ketubot 70a and B. Gitin 14b and elsewhere.
- Specifically, the transfer of property by a person in contemplation of death.
- B. Sanhedrin 46b-47a.
- Actually, the Talmud suggests two answers; our text deals with the first answer, since it is relevant to our she’elah. The second answer addresses the issue of funeral expenses. If the eulogy is “for the honor of the dead,” then the heirs are required to pay the fee of the preacher, if needed. If the eulogy is “for the honor of the living,” however, then the survivors are entitled to forego that honor and to save the money.
- Yad, Avel 12:1; Hilkhot HaRosh, Sanhedrin 6:2; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 344:10; Siftei Kohen, Yoreh De`ah 344, no. 8; Arukh Hashulchan, Yoreh De`ah 344, par. 7.
- offers for this ruling – “because burial of the dead is a mitzvah, derived from Deuteronomy 21:23″ – has long puzzled his commentators. The Talmud does not mention this justification when it discusses the question of whether to heed this instruction (B. Sanhedrin 46b). According to that passage, the reason we would not heed the instruction is because the failure to bury a corpse is seen as bi’yona, contemptible treatment of the body, and one is not authorized to subject even his own body to such a fate (see Siftei Kohen, Yoreh De`ah 348, no. 3, who cites this justification). Rambam, however, omits any mention of biz’yona (the Aramaic cognate of bizayon) from his ruling, and the commentators accordingly try to reconcile his statement with the Talmudic source that is supposed to determine the halakhah. This is not the place for an extended consideration of their efforts, but we would point to the comment of Lechem Mishneh to Yad loc. cit.: Rambam must regard the statement by Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai earlier in B. Sanhedrin 46b to be the controlling passage concerning our issue. That statement declares the verse Deuteronomy 21:23 as an “indication” (remez) that burial of the dead is a Toraitic commandment. If one accepts that statement as authoritative, as Rambam obviously does here, then one can disregard the subsequent discussion about biz’yona to be irrelevant to the issue at hand. It is enough to say that, because burial is a mitzvah to which the survivors are obligated, the deceased is not empowered to relieve them of that duty.
- Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century (New York: CCAR, 2010), no.5766.1, “When A Parent Instructs a Child Not to Say Kaddish,” vol. 2, pp. 183-192 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=1&year=5766 ).
- CCAR Responsum 5766.1 (see preceding note) at note 9.
- Ibid., note 14. For example, while the 15th-century German posek R. Ya`akov Weil (Responsa, no. 17, and see Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 344:10) rules that one is not empowered to release his mourners from the obligation to observe shiv`ah and sheloshim, the 18th-century German authority R. Ya`akov Reischer (Resp. Shevut Ya`akov 2:102) contradicts him, on the grounds that the rites of avelut are undertaken “for the honor of the dead.”
- Kevod hamet is the Hebrew equivalent of the Aramaic yekara deshakhvei.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.