Humanistic Judaism journal, “Death and Dying” Summer 1989
Remembering the dead is the way we, the living, give them a “temporary immortality.” Family and friends who have died survive in our memories and in the rituals and ceremonies we create to stimulate our memory.
The rabbinic tradition provided many opportunities for remembering.
There was the shiva, a seven-day period of intense mourning immediately following the death of a family member. While its main purpose was not remembrance, reminiscence was unavoidable. After all, the regular routine of work and leisure stopped in order to pay tribute to the dead.
There was the sh’loshim, a twenty-three- day period of less intense mourning following the shiva — and an eleven-month sequel for the loss of parents, with daily recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish. Certainly all this formal grieving focused the minds of the survivors on the life of the deceased.
There was the annual yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death. (Traditional Jewish culture ignored birthdays but found meaning in deathdays.) A flame of remembrance was kindled. The mourner’s Kaddish was recited. Thoughts of remembrance were inevitable.
There was the Yizkor service four times a year, on Pesakh, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atseret, when the souls of the dead were remembered and prayed for.
There was the matseva, a memorial stone placed on the grave of the deceased, often inscribed with tributes of love and respect in the form of Biblical quotations. Visiting the stone and reciting prayers before it were acts of remembering.
There were the many gifts to the synagogue and Jewish educational institutions — from Torah covers to buildings — which were dedicated to the memory of loved ones and which were on continuous public display.
Most of these remembrance rituals are still with us and permeate much of Jewish life. Although their theological significance has become less important for most Jews, their memory function has become more significant. We use these rituals as a way of connecting with people who were important to us.
Since religion began as a way of coping with death, especially the death of family members and loved ones, it is no mere coincidence that so much time is devoted to ceremonies of remembrance. And since so much of Jewish loyalty is built around tribal and ethnic roots, nostalgia is a primary emotion in our psychic makeup.
Although we as humanistic Jews continue to practice many of the same rituals as do our traditional brothers and sisters, we do them differently and act out of a different set of ideological principles.
We do not believe in life after death. We do not believe that the souls of the dead presently exist and that we can help them in their spiritual journey through our prayers. We do not believe that it is possible to feel their presence and to benefit from their intervention. For us, death is final.
We do not believe that the dead pose dangers to us and that we must appease them through supernatural assistance. The mourning period does not need to be filled with fasting and anxiety. It is not only a time to express our sadness and grief but also a time to celebrate the life of the person we loved. We are more open to messages of inspiration than to prescriptions for ritual.
We do believe in the significance of human life here on earth. We do believe in the value of human love and human courage and in the importance of remembering their expression in the lives of the people we know and loved. Our own ethical commitments come from the role models who touched our experience in a powerful way.
We do believe in the autonomy of the individual and in the right of every Jew to mold the culture of the past to his or her need. There can be no fixed, compulsory way to remember. People do not exist to serve the survival of ritual. Ritual exists to serve the needs of people. We are open to new and creative ways to remember the loved ones of our past.
Given these ideological premises, we have many humanistic opportunities, both traditional and new, to pay our tribute to the dead.
Staying at home for several days after the death of a family member gives us the opportunity to be consoled by friends and to talk about the loved one we lost. It is very important to set aside some time during each day of the mourning when everyone gathers around to share stories and reminiscences. The social encounters of the shiva often lead to trivial and awkward conversation, which offers us no consolation and leaves us empty. Informal remembering in the informal setting of the shiva is far more powerful and therapeutic than any well-crafted eulogy.
Recalling our loved one on the anniversary of the death is a significant way to acknowledge the continuing influence of that person through whatever legacy of love and learning was bestowed. We may choose to light a flame of remembrance in our home. We may choose to attend a Shabbat celebration and listen to the recitation of remembered names in a service of memorial. We may choose to spend quiet time with ourselves and with our memories. We may even prefer the Roman calendar date to that of the Hebrew calendar, since the former is what we tend to remember.
If we are part of a humanistic Jewish community, we may help to create an annual service of commemoration on Yom Kippur. At this service the continuing generational cycle of receiving and giving can be acknowledged and celebrated.
People are often defined by the causes they support. If there was some cause, political or charitable, which the deceased was identified with, an appropriate tribute is to support it on a continuing basis. A woman at whose funeral I officiated ten years ago loved animals and worked for the Humane Society. Her husband, out of a sense of commitment to her memory and to her values, has made the Humane Society a major focus of his charitable giving since her death.
Concrete, visible memorials help us remember because they are there to be seen and visited. However, they should be neither costly nor garish. Our remembrance will not be enhanced by ostentation. Nor will the dead be served by what they cannot experience.
If our loved ones are buried in a cemetery, memorial stones are appropriate. Inscriptions should be simple. Names and dates are often enough. Attempts to characterize the life of the person on a small stone are usually futile. Visitors will bring their own memories.
If a humanistic Jewish community owns its own land, a memorial wall is appropriate. Such a wall would contain the names of community members who have died and would allow for the commemoration of both the buried and the cremated.
If a humanistic Jewish community creates a library, a personal memorial book may be very meaningful. When I visited Kibbutz Kfar Hamakkabi eight years ago, I discovered in the library an entire section devoted to memorial books. Each book was dedicated to an individual member of the kibbutz who had died. It contained a biography, photographs, personal statements and letters of the deceased, and, most important of all, reminiscences and tributes from other members of the kibbutz. Each collection was unique and interesting, worthy of the great effort and devotion obviously required to create it. The book made the person real and significant in a way that more conventional memorials could not provide. For the young people of the kibbutz, these books were available to read or leaf through at leisure. They were wonderful vehicles for producing a sense of community and solidarity with the past.
We do not have the power to abolish death. We do have the power to value life. The character of human life is ultimately individual. Our refusal to forget, our insistence on remembering persons as persons, is our defiance of death and our tribute to life.