I have an amazing couple of weeks laid out for myself. It hits on many of the points in our lifecycle. Bat Mitzvah tutoring and rehearsal for a bar mitzvah that will take place in two weeks. I am tutoring 2 young people as well as teaching Sunday school. I am officiating at Shabbat services this week. Next week I am officiating at a baby naming. And today I conducted a short funeral for a family whose matriarch (grandmother) was about to be cremated.
This was another new experience for me on my road to defining myself as a liberal rabbi. Many years ago I wouldn’t have considered doing a ceremony for a cremation. Today I can’t imagine not doing one.
I know that there are varying opinions about cremation in Judaism with much of the traditional Jewish world holding it is not permissible. But even though there are Biblical and Talmudic precedents that favor burial over cremation, not to mention years and years of minhag, in my mind I find it difficult to reconcile withholding comfort and closure from a family because their loved one opted for cremation over burial. (see the Conservative Responsa on cremation – it’s short!)
The conclusion of the Responsa is as follows:
1. Cremation is against the Jewish tradition, and the family should be so advised by the rabbi.
2. Should the family decide not to follow the rabbi's advice, he may still choose to officiate in the funeral parlor before the body is cremated.
3. The ashes should be interred in a Jewish cemetery.
4. The interment should be private, without the presence of a rabbi.
5. In a situation where the rabbi's ruling has not been defied by the family, but he is faced with a fait accompli, the rabbi may choose to conduct services at the cemetery.
I am not comfortable with the language of “defying” the rabbi but I am fine with the rest of this conclusion. I did #2, I officiated in a funeral parlor before the cremation.
It was a very different type of experience for me. I’d never worked with a cremation before. I didn’t know the family at all – the funeral parlor called me yesterday to see if I were willing to officiate at such a funeral. I said yes without hesitation.
I met with the family in a small chapel where their deceased family member was laid out. I must admit I wasn’t totally prepared to do a ritual in front of a body laying in state, I’m not sure what I expected actually – probably a closed coffin. Though I have participated in taharot I haven’t seen that many bodies lying in state as it were.
I also purposely didn’t ask what they intended to do with the ashes, I didn’t want to know. That way I didn’t have to deal with interment vs. keeping the ashes in an urn. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered to me but I am not sure about that and didn’t want to find out then. In truth, now that I do think about it, I would prefer that the ashes are buried or scattered – from dust to dust and all – but I am not going to tell a family what to do.
The family requested a prayer or poem by a rabbi – that was it. After spending a bit of time talking with them I discovered that the grandmother had left a note detailing 5 points that she wanted mentioned. One of the things mentioned was that she wanted Psalm 23 read, it was one of her favorites. Interestingly the family wasn’t familiar with Psalm 23 or psalms in general, just knew that they were part of the Old Testament.
Ultimately I read the Reconstructionist translation of Psalm 23 as well as a beautiful interpretive version called Path of Fullness written by Brant Rosen. It has a verse that was very poignant:
“Thus is my spirit ever renewed, for my Guide leads me down paths of fullness.”
It ends with the words “To my Source, my destination.”
The words were very meaningful to the family, as the Grandmother had suffered from Alzheimer’s for quite a long time. The vision that she was no longer suffering, that her spirit was renewed and that she was once again herself was very powerful for the family members. As the daughter of a parent who also had suffered from Alzheimer’s for a very long time, I could emphasize fully with this family. I ended with El Malei Rachamim and a private recitation of Kaddish as we did not have a minyan.
The family hadn’t expected or even wanted much. In the end I think I gave them more than they asked for and they seemed to have received solace from that. It’s an honor to accompany a soul as it departs and a family as they mourn. I am grateful for the opportunity.