RRR 110-113

Dying Request: No Funeral Services, No Mourning

A dying man has specifically requested that no fu neral service be held for him and that his family should not mourn for him. However, his widow wants to observe mourning but is in doubt whether or not it is her duty to fulfill the request of her late husband. (From Miss Jane Evans, Executive Secretary, National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, New York City)

This question has come up a number of times in various forms in the legal literature. Sometimes a man requests that no memorial addresses be given in his honor (hesped); another will request that no Kaddish be recited; another may insist that no mourning be observed for him. The discussions of these various questions are always based upon the debate in the Talmud, b. Sanhedrin 47b. Here the Talmud is trying to determine the reason for the custom of burial in the earth. In the course of the discussion they ask the question, whether burial is for the purpose of saving the living from shame (if the body remains unburied) or for the purpose of providing atonement for the dead (since the earth by decaying the flesh brings atonement). This question is not clearly decided in the Talmud; but in the course of trying to decide it they mention that the choice between the two reasons (i.e., whether it is for the benefit of the living or for the dead) would be important in case a man should say, “Do not have a funeral address for me.” If burial is for the sake of the dead, he would have the right to dispense with the honor of the funeral service.

There is very little further discussion of the matter until the fourteenth century, in the Responsa of Jacob Weil (17). He discusses a specific case. A dying woman asked her daughters not to mourn for her; actually, her request was that they should not wear their cloaks over their heads as the mourners did. Should her daughters pay attention to this request? Jacob Weil, discussing this matter, goes back to the discussion in the Talmud mentioned above, and concludes that funeral rituals and customs are for the honor of the dead and that, therefore, the dying can ask that they be dispensed with. Yet not all of mourning is for the honor of the dead. The seven days of shiva and the thirty days of half-mourning apply to all the dead equally and not merely to a parent. The mother may ask her children to dispense with the full year’s mourning (i.e., after the thirty days) because the full year’s mourning is of special honor to a parent and a parent can, therefore, ask that it be dispensed with. But the regular seven and thirty days’ mourning are to be considered a commandment incumbent upon all who mourn for any relative, and the mother surely has not the right to abolish the laws of mourning. She can only dispense with her own special honors.

The opinion implied in the Talmud that a man may dispense with the special honor due him after his death, and the opinion expressed by Jacob Weil that a person cannot by request abolish the duty of the seven and the thirty days’ mourning, are both embodied in the law as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 344 : 6). There Joseph Caro states the Talmudic law that if a man asks that there be no eulogy for him (which may also be taken to mean funeral services in general) we obey his request. To which Isserles adds (based upon the responsum of Jacob Weil) that if, however, he asks that the seven and the thirty days’ mourning be abolished we do not obey his request.

On the basis of the law thus codified, a number of specific cases are discussed in the responsa literature. Eliakim Goetz, Rabbi of Hildesheim in the seventeenth century, in his Responsa, “Even Ha-Shoham” 42, gives the following case: A man before his death requested that his son not say Kaddish after him, and that his married daughter should not mourn for him. Goetz takes up all the previous authorities mentioned and concludes that since Kaddish is for the atonement of the dead, the dead have the right to decide whether they want it or not, and therefore the deceased father’s request should be obeyed in this regard. But as for his daughter’s not mourning for him, this, he says (following Jacob Weil), is not his right to demand. He may not abolish the laws of mourning.

Jacob ben Samuel, a contemporary of Goetz, in his responsa, “Bes Ya’akov” 83, gives a case that is somewhat different. A great scholar asked that no eulogies be uttered for him. Should we listen to that request? The author is not sure. He is certain that if an average person made the request we should follow it. But since it is a duty to mourn a great scholar, it is difficult to decide; and he concludes that if someone, in spite of the dying request, does eulogize the great scholar, he has not done much wrong thereby.

Elazar Fleckeles, Rabbi of Prague in the eighteenth century, discusses the same question in two responsa (“Teshuva M’ahava,” vol. I, nos. 174 and 207). In the first responsum he discusses the fact that his great teacher, Ezekiel Landau, of Prague, did memorialize a great scholar who had asked not to be memorialized. However, he adds (in spite of what his teacher had done), it is not clear that we have the right to ignore the request of the departed. In the responsum 207 he repeats the point of view of the Shulchan Aruch, that we should not eulogize but should fulfill the mourning requirements, and then cites a point of view to the effect that even the mourning requirements need not be observed if the departed has so requested. He quotes this from Jacob Reischer who, in his notes to the Talmud, Sanhedrin 47 (“Iyyun Ya’akov”), says that even the mourning requirements of the seven and the thirty days are really for the honor of the dead (i.e., as much as the funeral services are) and therefore the dead may have rightly requested that they too be dispensed with (cf. “Shevus Ya’asov” II, 102). After quoting this exceptional opinion of Jacob Reischer, Elazar Fleckeles disagrees with him and states that we follow the opinion of Jacob Weil and that the dead have no right to abolish the obligatory laws of mourning—i.e., the seven and the thirty days.

It is evident, then, that there is some uncertainty in the law. The dying person’s request that he not be eulogized, or that Kaddish not be said, seems to be generally admitted as his right; but the mourning, at least the basic mourning of the seven and thirty days, are rather the duty of the living than merely the honor of the dead, and, therefore, it is not his right to demand that they be omitted. In the case, therefore, which has been inquired about, the wish of the dead should be followed with regard to the funeral service. It can be greatly simplified or the ritual even omitted entirely. But the wife is right in her desire to mourn for him; in fact, it is her duty to do so.