Project of IISHJ

Humanistic Judaism Answers Some Questions about Death and Mourning

Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1978, Vol. VI, Number I

Responses by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine 

Interview by Jacqueline Zigman 


Q. Since Humanistic Jews would find the traditional mourning services inappropriate, what meditations might they find useful? 

  1. We as Humanistic Jews ought to articulate our philosophy of life at the crisis of death. Meditations, both public and private, can be used for this purpose. These meditations are alternatives to the recitation of the traditional Kaddish. Many Humanistic Jews are uncomfortable with the Kaddish because it is fundamentally a praise of God. In the situation where a deceased relative or friend had requested the Kaddish, the Humanistic Jew obliges by finding a substitute who truly believes in saying this prayer. Humanistic Jews promote their integrity by saying publicly only what is consistent with their convictions. 

Suggested Meditations: 

Death is something individual. Against the collective stream of life it seems powerless. Particular flowers fade and die; but every spring repeats them in the cycle of nature. Individual man is a brief episode and is devoured by death; but mankind bears the marks of immortality, renewed in every generation by the undying spark of life. We are, each of us, greater than ourselves. We survive in the children we create; we endure in the humanity we serve. 

As an individual, separate and distinct, each of us is temporary, a short chapter in the story of the universe. As a part of the neverending process of life, each of us is immortal, a wave in the eternal flow of vital energy. The leaves of last year’s summer have died and vanished into the soil of mother earth. But, in a special sense, each lives on in the revival of every spring. Every man dies, but mankind survives. Every living thing perishes, but life persists. 

The past is unchangeable. What happened yesterday is beyond our control. We can cry and shout. We can scream and complain. But the events of just a moment ago are as far from our reach as the farthest star. The fool never forgives the past. He devotes every present moment to worrying about it, scolding it, and wishing it were different. 

Memory is a precious possession. It captures the past and trains it to our needs. The harshness of old events is softened by vagueness and the pleasure of happy moments sharpened by vivid imagination. Loved ones linger on in the glory of their individual uniqueness. In life they willed to live and hewed the path of their personal difference. In death they transcend decay and find their niche in fond remembrance. No man is defined by the sameness of another; if it were so, memory would die from generalities. 

Death hovers over every deed of man, over every action he performs. For some men death is an obsession, destroying their pleasure and filling their soul with anxious fears. For others death is a challenge prompting them to enjoy life while they live and urging them to taste their talents while they can. These men are men of dignity who respond to death with courage and to life with zest. 

The glories of our universe are never eternal. They shine for a while and are then consumed by the darkness. All things change. All life yields to death. If the beauties of nature endured forever, they would not be precious. We cannot love what we do not fear to lose. 

Freedom is the power to release the past. It is the good humor (sic) to give up what cannot be altered-the easiness to surrender what cannot be changed. Countless men and women live in the prison of their past. They are the tortured victims of their memories. They are the martyr slaves of their regrets. The present and the future hold no special challenge to them. They are merely opportune moments to reflect on old pleasure and an old pain. What might have been is an obsession. What could be is scarcely a thought. 

The free man learns from the past. But he does not live there. He does not seek to recapture old pain. He works to achieve new pleasures. He does not need to survive on the faded memories of faded happiness. He strives to create new joy. He uses the past to fashion a more interesting future. 

We often run away from life. We think of death and are obsessed by it. The threat of aging fills us with dread and casts a shadow over all our youthful pleasures. The end of our story ruins the middle and sours the taste of our happiness. Why bother to pursue what must pass away? Why bother to value what must cease to be? 


Q. Since humanists affirm responsibility for their lives, it would seem fitting that they should make their own death arrangements. What pre-death arrangements can humanists make? 

  1. EUTHANASIA-We as Humanistic Jews do not believe the purpose of life is mere survival. We  believe the purpose of life is survival with dignity. When survival with dignity is no longer possible, we affirm our right to choose to die. Euthanasia is an appropriate alternative to involuntary death when there is terminal illness and physical humiliation. If we can not arrange in advance to guarantee our right to dignity we shall, like most people, become victims of guilty relatives and timid physicians. Legally our moral right to euthanasia has not yet been granted, but we can apply moral pressure on our surivvors by signing a document called The Living Will. Copies of The Living Will may be obtained from Euthanasia Educational Council, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. A tax-deductible contribution is appropriate when sending for copies. 

PARTIAL DONATION-The organs are removed from the body to be used for transplants or research programs. Both of these processes aid in improving the quality of life. The following organization have a desperate need for organs: 

Deafness Research Foundation, 366 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10617 

Michigan Eye Bank-Wayne State University, 540 East Canfield Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48201 (Note: each state has its own eye bank) 

Human Growth Inc. (Pituitary Gland), 307 Fifth Avenue, new York, New York 10016 

Kidney Foundation of Michigan, 3378 Washtenaw Avenue, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48014 (Note: each state has its own Kidney Foundation) 

Whole donation-Whole body donation allows you to contribute to the advancement of medical knowledge. This new knowledge is used to benefit those people in need of medical care. The entire body must be donated with no organs removed except the eyes. Also, there is no expense to the daily for transportation, casket or disposal of the body. Inquiries should be made of medical schools in your area. 

CREMATION-Most Humanistic Jews prefer cremation to burial. This preference is defined in three ways: 

  1. Historically, burial was performed because of the traditional belief in the resurrection of the dead. Therefore the function of burial is negated by its contradiction to reality. 
  1. In an overpopulated world with limited space, cremation is the more reasonable method of disposal. 
  1. The quick finality of cremation has more aesthetic appeal then the traditional custom of dumping remains to rot. 


Q. What are appropriate settings for a Humanistic Jewish memorial service? 

  1. TEMPLE-Our Temple is our family home and we feel it should be used for sad as well as happy occasions. Therefore, we feel it appropriate to have the memorial service at the Birmingham Temple. It is not necessary to the body present, arrangements can be made with the funeral director. 

           HOME-Another available option for the Humanistic Jew is for the memorial 

           service to be performed in a home. The body need not be present. 

FUNERAL CHAPEL-Another alternative. 

See MEDITATIONS AND PHILOSOPHY at the beginning of this interview for suggested readings at the memorial service. 


Q. What mourning procedures can Humanist Jews follow comfortably? 

  1. Most Humanistic Jews need the support and understanding of a loving community. There are various ways in which family, friends and the congregation may help. 

RECEIVING VISITORS-traditional mourning required a seven day period of fasting, abstinence and immobility after death. The purpose of this shiva (7 days) was to divert the anger of God. For Humanistic Jews such activity is inappropriate. However, the custom of visiting mourners is still very appropriate. Most people enjoy the empathy and understanding of their family and friends during the crisis of death. We as Humanistic Jews can choose to remain home to receive visitors after the memorial service. If we do so, the number of days that we remain at home is up to our own personal feelings. Such a response is equally valid. If visiting is desired, there is no reason why sadness and solemnity should prevail. We can best honor the dead by affirming their joy and not by dramatizing their sadness. 

YAHRZEIT-The word Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning anniversary. It refers to the traditional custom of remembering the dead on the anniversary of their death. It is traditional on the yahrzeit day to kindle a light which burns all day in memory of the loved one. It is also customary in many Conservative and Reform congregations to read the name of the loved one on the Sabbath preceding the yahrzeit. It would therefore be appropriate to kindle such a light. We also find meaning in the public recitation of the name of our loved one, since we can then share their memory with the congregational family. However, many of us need no ceremony to remember. Some HumanisticJ ews may regard both candles and public announcements as irrelevant and intrusive. We respect their rights to remember privately. Tradition determines the yahrzeit date fby the use of the Hebrew lunar calendar. Since no Jew in his daily life uses this calendar, calculation is awkward and makes anniversary (sic) hard to determine. Common sense indicates that we use the universal Roman calendar to determine this date, since this calendar has become the effective way of counting time for all Jews. 

YIZKOR-Yizkor is a Hebrew word meaning memorial. It refers to a public memorial service which is held traditionally 4 times a year–Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret. We as Humanistic Jews believe that a public memorial service during which the entire Temple family can share the experience with mutual support is useful and desirable. However, repetition within a short period of time usually dulls the effect of most important events. We therefore regard it as appropriate to hold such a memorial service on Yom Kippur afternoon. 

MEMORIAL STONES-Markers are appropriate to burial sites since Humanistic Jews believe in both discretion and simplicity as aesthetic virtues. Markers should be small and fairly inconspicuous. Large and ostentatious memorial stones are inappropriate. The most desirable kind of marker would be a small stone or metal marker parallel to the ground. 

UNVEILINGS-Ceremonies of unveilings are neither traditional nor psychologically desirable. They are American inventions which have no deep roots in Jewish history. Unveiling ceremonies tend to be unnecessary second funerals. They needlessly awake old grief. The proper memorial is either the yahrzeit or yizkor ceremonies. 

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.