The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.—Thornton Wilder, “The Skin of our Teeth”
Much has been written about the psychological value attached to the mourning practices of Jewish tradition. The excellent anthology of essays titled Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by our colleague Jack Riemer,1 highlights most effectively and movingly how the Jewish approach to death can have a salutary impact upon us, as we pass through that inevitable valley of shadow and mystery. As discussed by Riemer, the following facets of the Jewish way of death are sources of strength and wisdom, which can transform death into an experience of comfort and spiritual meaning. Here are a few relevant passages from the book:
Judaism is realistic … this realism about death and about the need to know it and prepare for it all the days of one’s life is a motif that can be traced all the way through the tradition. … The Day of Atonement can be understood in part as a kind of annual encounter with or rehearsal for death … the section of the prayers said when dying [are] brief and simple, the words plain and direct, but they contain a certain grace and wisdom … worthy of our study.2
Halakhah … gives form and order and structure to our grief and keeps it from becoming shapeless or uncontrolled.3 [End Page 89]
The community … reaches out to the Jew in his time of grief and lets him know that he is not alone and (she) is not abandoned.4
There is God … who makes of death a homecoming and a return. God is the mystery from whom we come and to whom we go.5
Against this background of basic principles, I would like to explore the nature of the Jewish funeral service itself as a powerful process by which the rabbi can bring not only comfort and solace to the mourner but also infuse these dark and trying moments with the light of Jewish perspective flowing organically out of the words of the service, inviting the mourner to engage in a spiritual journey of inner transformation and growth. Needless to say, this task is not an easy one. Yet, Jewish tradition firmly believes that the great spiritual objectives of life are reachable in spite of—perhaps often precisely because of—the many human and natural obstacles that stand in their way, the many occasions of suffering and hardship that constitute so much of our lives. The mitzvot were given l’tzareif bahem et ha-adam, as a means to purify or refine the human character.6 Together with the purpose of bringing comfort and ease to the mourner, the tradition is so structured to challenge as it comforts, to bring solace at the same time as it points the way to greater awareness of life’s blessing and God’s presence in the world. By examining the beginning and end of the funeral service, we may glimpse the brilliance of rabbinic insight about the capacity of tradition to impact our experience of loss and bereavement ritually, bringing a needed sense of acceptance and the possibility of an inner transformation of the heart.
At the first encounter with death, the Shulḥan Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law)7 instructs that one immediately recite a benediction (barukh dayyan ha-emet) and then rends one’s garment, before anything else is done. As Isaac Klein notes, however, “for a very practical reason … the [End Page 90] ‘Kriah’ is now done at the funeral—all the mourners are present and normally there is someone there who knows the procedure.”8 The shock, sadness, pain, and confusion of death and loss are thus punctuated by reciting a blessing. It is as if we inject the darkness and absurdity of life with a ray of light, which is reflected in the words of blessing and praise. Beyond the bracing impact of this blessing to make the death real, I believe that it offers the mourner a first step along a personal transformative journey guided by spiritual signposts of gratefulness.
Ostensibly incongruent, contradictory, or even unfair, the...