Jewish rituals of death and mourning

By Laura Seymour

Dear Friends,

My columns tend to be about ways to “do Jewish” so that we can connect with Judaism and with others. We have many rituals that give us direction in how to do things; some feel that the details are not important, but our experiences are remembered in the details. This past weekend with the passing of a community hero and my dear friend and colleague, Debra Polsky, it is a good time to speak of our rituals of death and mourning. Debra was always the teacher and I know she would be happy to be a “teaching moment.” I never mean to be flippant, yet I have said that we do death and mourning in our religion well. The process from the moment of death through the mourning follows ritual designed to get us through a difficult time. As a member of our congregation’s Chevra Kadisha (burial society), I participate in the first steps of preparation and know how everything will move in an orchestrated ritual. Of course there are ways each family handles the details but the comfort comes from knowing there is a path that we can follow.

One of the “best” parts of how we mourn (if we can call it “best”) is the recognition that mourning takes time yet we must also move on. The tradition of shiva ending after seven days with a walk around the block demonstrates that push we often need to get back to our lives. Then we have additional markers at 30 days and then the year of saying Kaddish followed by a yearly remembrance along with holiday times to stand with community. We are a people of memory but also of hope and that is what keeps us going.

This is not a usual topic for this column as I often try to write for young families, although I know all ages read my thoughts. Death is not an easy topic and yet we cannot and should not hide this part of life from our children. I have books galore that parents often borrow (and often children’s books help even adults grieve) but I recommend talking to our children of all ages about death so it isn’t so frightening. If we wait until a death of a close friend or family member happens and then try to explain, we often are not able to talk.

There is no greater honor for us as teachers than to be a lesson for learning. Debra was one of the most dedicated and knowledgeable of all teachers I have studied with. It was an honor to learn with her. To Debra, may your memory be a blessing and inspire all of us to keep on learning…and teaching!

Laura Seymour is Jewish experiential learning director and camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.

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