Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
She’s going to die when we’re in Mexico, and if that happens, I’m not coming back. There’s no point in coming back for a funeral that’s not happening.
My brother and I were sitting in the cafeteria at Sloan Kettering in New York when I said this to him. It was the first of many unusual decisions I would make regarding my mother’s death.
My mother and I had talked about her death many times. I first learned of my mother’s wishes regarding her death about 25 years ago when she said that she wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered. I told her that if she wanted to make sure her wishes were honored, she had to make sure that my brother was responsible for carrying them out, not me. While my parents gave my brother and me a fairly typical suburban Reform Jewish upbringing, today I’m a Conservative rabbi and generally frown on cremation. My brother, meanwhile, is an active lay leader in his Unitarian congregation.
I told my mom that I wouldn’t do anything to prevent her body from being cremated but I couldn’t be the one who made sure it happened, and we left it at that. I think both of us were OK with this unspoken compromise; my mother’s remains would be disposed of in accordance with her wishes while I would not have to violate my own religious commitments to make that happen.
Throughout her many struggles with cancer, we had various discussions on her wishes for how her death should be handled. In 1975, when I was 15, my mom had an ocular melanoma and was told that she had six months to live. That prognosis was off by a mere 42 years.
Eight years ago, when my mom was diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer, a very rare and aggressive cancer with a one-year survival rate of less than 1 in 5, she still wanted to be cremated, and did not want a funeral, but she had asked her cousin, who has ordination as an interfaith minister, to oversee the scattering of her ashes near the beach where she went most mornings. She beat the odds again and after a summer of treatment at Sloan Kettering in New York, she returned home to Florida.
Six years after her initial diagnosis and treatment, the cancer spread to her brain. Her doctors at first tried to convince her that what she had was treatable, but they were honest enough to admit that the side effects would be significant and permanent — after all, they were talking about removing a sizable chunk of her brain. Without surgery, they said that her prognosis was probably around a month or so. With the previous strain and side effects of treatments, she decided that she’d had enough and declined any further treatment other than palliative care. Under the circumstances, my brother and I both felt this was a reasonable decision.
Since my mom had a history of outliving her prognoses I assumed that this would be the case once again. By now it was late March. My wife and I had already booked a two-week trip to Mexico in July and somehow I just had a feeling that she would die during our trip. As a rabbi, I’ve seen congregants have plans disrupted by the illness or death of a family member, and I’ve seen people struggle with whether they should travel when a parent was ill. I’ve also seen funerals delayed because a child or grandchild wasn’t able to get home for a funeral as soon as they would like.
But what would be the point of canceling our trip, or bearing the expense of coming back, when there wasn’t going to be a funeral? I would make every effort to spend as much time with her as I could in the time she had left — and I wound up traveling from suburban Maryland to New York almost weekly for some time — but if she was still alive when the time for our trip came, I was going to go.
Deciding whether or not to come back home in the event Mom died while I was in Mexico was not the only decision I had to make in terms of how I would handle mourning her. I, of course, knew all the traditional Jewish rituals regarding the death of a loved one. Traditional Judaism has an elaborate and, I believe, psychologically astute road map for mourning the death of a parent. At the time one is informed of the death, a traditional Jew rends the garment they are wearing and blesses God as the Judge of Truth. From that time until the funeral, your only obligation is to care for the body and make funeral arrangements. During this period of aninut, you are not obligated to pray or put on tefillin or perform any other rituals, to the extent that if one were to nevertheless attend services they are not counted in the minyan. After the funeral one sits shiva for seven days (the word “shiva” in fact means seven) during which one does not leave the house. Friends and relatives are supposed to bring you food, and services are held in your house so that you can say Kaddish without having to leave. You don’t shave or get a haircut and of course, you don’t go to work.
After the shiva comes the shloshim which means “thirty.” You get up from Shiva and go back to work, but you continue to attend services daily to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, and you are supposed to refrain from shaving and haircuts until someone rebukes you for your unkempt appearance or it interferes with your livelihood. For any other relative, the end of the shloshim is the end of formal mourning, but for a parent, one continues to say Kaddish, abstain from festive celebrations and live music, and so on, for 11 months. Although families sometimes balk at these restrictions — they want to get back to work sooner, or think that avoiding certain activities which they love will disrupt their lives too much — more often than not even reluctant families come to find value in the structure that the traditional practices create.
But I wondered: when does aninut end, and Shiva begin when there is no funeral and no burial? It isn’t always easy to apply traditional answers to non-traditional circumstances.
I knew that the strictly traditional answer is actually very simple: if a Jewish person chooses to be cremated, there is no aninut, no Shiva, no shloshim, no Mourner’s Kaddish, no mourning practices of any kind. Why not? Since cremation is contrary to Jewish law (which is why I told my Mom so many years ago that I could not be the one responsible for carrying her wishes out), most guides to Jewish law assume that in choosing cremation the deceased had signaled his or her rejection of Judaism and denial of God. And we don’t engage in Jewish mourning rituals for Jews who have rejected Judaism.
This assumption might have had some validity in the pre-modern world where social pressure and societal norms meant that people more or less automatically conformed with the rules of their religion. But, I know that Jews today, (and those of other religions), are free to pick and choose. My mother certainly knew that cremation was contrary to Jewish law, but her choice to nevertheless be cremated didn’t mean she was rejecting Judaism or God. She was just rejecting one particular law. My mother had a strong Jewish identity and while she was not traditionally observant, she had a very strong belief in God and prayed every day in her own way. I couldn’t accept the idea that because she had chosen cremation, I should not observe any mourning rituals at all when she died. She was my mother, after all. But not so much for her — she was actually pretty adamant that she wanted no rituals of any kind — but for me. Her choices about what should be done with her body would not, it seemed clear to me, obviate my own need to mourn in some way.
So I needed to figure out how to do this in a way that met my own needs while acknowledging the fact that my mother had made a choice that was, like her, untraditional. I also needed to do this in a way that not only made sense to me but one that I could explain to my congregants, who often take their cues about what is Jewishly acceptable from observing their rabbi’s behavior. While I didn’t want to do something that felt inauthentic simply because of concerns about what congregants might think, I also didn’t want them to conclude that if, for example, I chose not to sit Shiva when my mother died, it was OK for them not to sit Shiva either when they lost a parent.
People often have to make decisions about how to handle a relative’s death quickly and while they are in shock; in fact, this may be one of the reasons why Judaism gives us a road map and also prescribes how the deceased is to be dressed, what type of coffin to use, and so on. In my mother’s case, I had, as it turned out, almost four months from the time she chose palliative care to the time she actually died. This gave me the opportunity to think things through a bit. I also met with an older colleague to process what I wanted to do, since every now and then even a rabbi needs a rabbi.
I decided that when the time came I would not sit shiva or fully observe all the rituals of mourning but that for 11 months from the time of my mom’s death I would say Mourner’s Kaddish whenever I was at services and there was a minyan. But unlike many traditionally-observant Jews, I was not going to bend over backward to attend minyan twice daily. This felt like a reasonable way of balancing my needs and her wishes.
Since my rabbinic position has me attending services six days a week anyway, I would say Kaddish then if there were ten present for a minyan. I also decided that since there is a communal aspect to Shiva — that friends and co-workers appreciate the opportunity to express their condolences — I would, shortly after my mom’s death, have a small reception at the synagogue before and after evening minyan to allow this to happen, even though it wouldn’t formally be Shiva.
I wrote a letter to my congregation explaining all of this, to be sent out when my Mom died. But while I had figured out what I would do in terms of public mourning rituals, it was unclear to me how I would handle things privately.
During the time that we were in Mexico, my brother kept me apprised of my mother’s deteriorating health status, matters of her estate which he was handling, and let me speak to her, although she was increasingly incapable of responding. When we went to the synagogue in Ajijic, Mexico on Shabbat, we discovered that they had just bought three pulpit chairs and you could dedicate one for a donation. We reserved one and told the synagogue we would give them the inscription for the plaque in a few days since by that time we were pretty certain that my Mom would die very soon. I also had a brief discussion with an Ajijic congregant who had worked as a grief counselor in the United States — not much of a conversation, since it was in the synagogue during Shabbat dinner, but something.
Two days later we were in Chapala, the next town over when my brother phoned. He was just calling to let me know that she was approaching death and that maybe it was time to say goodbye and also for me to tell her that it was okay for her to go. This I did.
The next night I went to bed and while I almost always sleep the whole night through, I got up to go to the bathroom and saw a text message from my brother that our Mom had died. While I had given a lot of thought both to the public mourning rituals I would and would not observe, and how I would communicate those decisions to my congregants and others, I really did not know until that moment how I would react in private. Almost to my own surprise, I said the traditional blessing of God as the Judge of Truth and tore a gash into the t-shirt I was wearing. I also decided on the spot to stop shaving for at least the next thirty days — and this is why today I have a full beard rather than the goatee I had at the time. I called my brother — even though it was around 2 a.m. — and he agreed that there was no reason for me to come home.
The week or so after my mother’s death is partly a blur. There are things that I don’t remember, gaps in my recollection, things that I am not sure I remember accurately. But these are my recollections, accurate or not.
This was on a Wednesday morning and my wife and I had scheduled a private half-day tour for that morning. We decided to go on the tour anyway. When we finished we asked the tour guide to drop us off at the tianguis, the weekly street market, and as we got out of the van the first person we saw was the former grief counselor with whom I had chatted a few nights earlier. I told her that my Mom had died and she offered to make some phone calls and send some emails among the Ajijic congregation to put together a minyan for that evening so I could say Kaddish. I thanked her for her offer — and I really did appreciate it — but I declined. I think it was a little early for me to start saying Kaddish; if my Mom had chosen a normative Jewish burial, I would still be in aninut preparing for her funeral and would neither be attending services nor saying Kaddish. I was feeling my way through the murky world of personalized mourning and Jewish ritual.
Although my Mom, my brother, and I had agreed that he would handle the cremation and disposition arrangements so that I would not be put in a position of acting against my religious principles, when the funeral home came to collect my Mom’s body for cremation we discovered that putting this agreement into practice was not as easy as we thought it would be.
Learning that my Mom had two sons, the funeral home wanted me to sign a declaration that I agreed to her cremation, and to have it notarized. My brother told them that: 1.) I was out of the country and therefore getting any document notarized was going to be a problem, and 2.) he was not willing to ask me to sign something that he knew violated my religious principles. But the funeral home wouldn’t budge. It seems that funeral homes are concerned that if they cremate a body without the written consent of all next of kin, they might get sued.
When my brother called me the afternoon after my Mom died to tell me this, I told him that I was so appreciative of everything that he had done and all the trouble he had gone through, that I would sign whatever they wanted me to sign so that he wouldn’t have one more hassle to deal with. But part of my brother’s own religious commitment as a Unitarian Universalist is respect for diverse religious practices, and it seemed really important to him to figure out a way for me to give the funeral home what they felt they needed without stating that I approved of or agreed to my Mom’s cremation. Finally, he and the funeral home drew up a statement that I “decline to participate” in making arrangements and waive the right to sue. This felt right for me too; it was another example of how we respected and tried to accommodate each other despite our very different religious perspectives. My brother scanned the paper and emailed it to me but I was not able to get it notarized until the day after we returned home, a week to the day after my Mom’s death. Her body was cremated sometime later.
My Mom died early Wednesday and on Thursday we flew from Guadalajara to Cancun as we had planned for a few days of beach time in Playa del Carmen. It was fortunate that this is what we had already put on our itinerary because I could sit my own type of Shiva. Our hotel was right on the beach and our ocean front room included access to a Club Lounge where there was enough food and drink that we wouldn’t feel the need to go out for meals. Over the course of three days, my wife never left the hotel at all and I only left once, to go to a nearby Oxxo (the ubiquitous Mexican equivalent of 7-11) to pick up a few snacks to keep in our room or take down to the beach. While it wasn’t technically sitting shiva, it was quiet and peaceful and gave me an opportunity to sit with my grief for a few days — and since I am an introvert, this quiet pseudo-shiva might have been better for me psychologically than an actual Shiva with people coming and going. I thought about my mother a lot during those days—ironically how her parenting had influenced me to become a Rabbi and be the person I had become. Once again, I was constructing a ritual that felt right for me and felt like I was honoring my mother in a way that made sense.
Although I chose not to go to synagogue that Shabbat, I did nevertheless unexpectedly manage to say Kaddish with a minyan. Hanging out at the pool on Friday we noticed that there was a large group of people, mostly speaking with each other in Spanish but occasionally in Hebrew, some of them wearing “chai” or Star of David necklaces. They were members of a Jewish extended family from Costa Rica and I started talking with a couple of the men in a combination of Hebrew, Spanish, and English; although the family was based in Costa Rica some of them now lived in Miami and others in Israel. During the course of the conversation I mentioned that my mother had just died and they told me they had arranged with the hotel to have a Shabbat dinner in a private room off the main restaurant and they would be happy for us to join them; and since there would be at least ten adult Jews present, I could say Kaddish. Although I was really grateful, I declined the invitation for dinner but told them I would drop by at some point to say Kaddish.
A couple of days after that we flew home, but I was still on vacation. I think any pulpit rabbi will tell you that it’s almost impossible to go to services at your own synagogue as a regular congregant when you are at home but on vacation. I’ve been the rabbi for three different congregations and my current congregation is really good about making sure that I take all the vacation to which I am entitled and that I’m left alone during that time. But it’s impossible to walk into the synagogue building without being “the rabbi” and I still needed some downtime.
I did, however, schedule the evening minyan gathering for people to share their condolences for about a week after we returned home. I had anticipated paying for this myself and having to come a little early and stay a little late to set out the food and beverages, but to my surprise, the synagogue Good and Welfare Committee and office staff told me they would take care of everything. I was very grateful for this support, and for all the people who came to minyan that night and heard me give a brief talk about my Mom and the values of justice and care for the poor and powerless which she taught me — which the psalm read that evening, Psalm 82, encapsulates. “Defend the weak and the orphan; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Over my rabbinic career, I’ve seen a handful of situations where a congregant’s loved one expressed, like my mother did, a desire not to have a funeral. While I am sure that this request was made with the best of intentions, it often leaves the survivors somewhat unsettled, as the circle has not been fully closed. I’ve also had congregants who were Jews by Choice wondering if it was OK for them to sit shiva and say Kaddish for a deceased parent. My response has always been “While your parent was not Jewish, you are, and you need to mourn in a way that makes sense for you as a Jew.” I was now carrying out my own advice, in a way.
Both of these dynamics came into play when my brother received my mom’s ashes from the crematory. When my mom made arrangements with her cousin to scatter her ashes at the beach in Florida, she had assumed she would die in Florida. But she died and was cremated in New Jersey and shipping ashes interstate is a complicated matter. My brother also came to feel that although my Mom had repeatedly said she didn’t want a funeral, he needed to have a memorial service of some sort for her as well as do something with her ashes. I completely understood the need. I had been comforted by my community and had been saying Kaddish for some time, and he felt the need to receive the same from his community, his Unitarian Universalist congregation in New Jersey.
One Sunday the immediate family — my brother, our spouses, his two daughters, and my uncle and aunt, met early in the morning at the beach where she had lived in New Jersey before she moved to Florida. He scattered her ashes there; he had earlier asked me if I wanted to participate and I said that I would be present but not take part. And later that afternoon, there was a memorial service at his Unitarian congregation in which he wanted me to participate.
This turned out to be the one area where we had some disagreement. I definitely understood my brother’s desire for some sort of formalized ritual of grief and to be comforted by his own spiritual community. I told him that I understood the need just like I understood, and endorsed, the need of congregants to mourn non-Jewish parents by sitting shiva and saying kaddish. But it was one thing for them to sit shiva and say kaddish; it would have been something else entirely if they had wanted to hold a Jewish funeral for their non-Jewish parent. The child is Jewish but the parent wasn’t, and if I were ever to be faced with such a request I would certainly say “no.”
My brother’s plans for my Mom’s memorial service seemed to be the mirror image of having a Jewish funeral for a non-Jewish parent, particularly since he wanted the service to be in the sanctuary and for the minister to lead it. I explained to him that I totally understood his desire to hold a gathering where his fellow congregants could come and comfort him, and I felt that after all he had done for our mom — much more than I had — he deserved it. But he is a Unitarian; our mother was not. Although she was not particularly observant she was most definitely Jewish, and I felt it was inappropriate to hold what to me seemed like a Unitarian memorial service for a Jewish woman.
I asked him if it would be OK for me to speak with his minister and he said it would be. I shared my concerns and said I felt that there was a difference between a gathering for my brother’s congregation to support him in his grief and a gathering that was, in essence, a memorial service for my mom. I was not surprised that she was sympathetic and I suggested that if the gathering were held in the congregation’s social hall rather than the sanctuary I would find it less problematic and could both attend and participate. I am not sure that my brother really understood my objections — perhaps because his view of Unitarian Universalism encompasses other traditions and therefore to him Unitarian doesn’t mean “not Jewish” but rather “Jewish and . . .” But we had developed a pattern of trying to be considerate of each other’s needs and my brother agreed to hold the gathering in the social hall, and I agreed to attend and to speak. This sat well with me but was just another example of the very unusual and personalized rituals that my mother had surrounding her death.
Having sat for a few days, gathered for minyanim at the synagogue, torn my shirt and grown my beard, said Kaddish, and honored my brother’s need to have a memorial with his spiritual community— all worked for me. It felt authentic; I was meeting my need to ritualize my mourning, I had given an opportunity to friends and congregants to come and offer condolences. It gave me an opportunity to express my grief while not violating my mother’s wishes for the disposition of her remains. And having worked through difficult issues of trying to accommodate my own family’s differing desires and perspectives, I feel better able to help my congregants do so as well.