Traditions in Death - Thursday, December 7

Wed, 12/06/2017 - 4:15pm -- Rabbi Shalom Lewis
Rabbi Shalom Lewis

As Jews, we have a vast number of traditions and rituals associated with death. From tossing soil on a pine box to kriah to shiva to kaddish, we are top heavy with customs that help us through the darkness and sorrow of loss.

We claim the emotional and psychological high ground of bereavement and quietly mock other cultures that grieve differently. We snicker at huge monuments. Roll our eyes at mausoleums. Chuckle at ornate, brass coffins and piles of flowers. At a moment that demands cultural empathy we are a bit snooty in our celebration of the departed. When our loved ones are no longer, we believe that our way is best and that the Jewish way in mourning is superior to all other expressions of grief.

I proudly state that our approach is stunningly sound in the promotion of healing and in the veneration extended the deceased but by no means do we have a monopoly. It was a touching, powerful gesture of devotion by a daughter for her deceased mother. The news piece reported that a bottle with ashes had washed up on the Florida coast. Inside, were the cremains of a woman who died four years earlier. The woman in the bottle, her daughter explained, never had an opportunity to travel when alive. She never got to see exotic, faraway places. To hear Big Ben. To ski the Alps. To gaze at the Eiffel Tower. And so, the daughter sent her on a trip to experience in death what she didn’t experience in life. After she passed away, the ashes of her cremated mother were placed into a bottle and tossed sweetly into the Atlantic so that finally, she could be a tourist and see the world. Yes, I know we frown on cremation. Yes, I know the remains go into the ground. Yes, I know ‘dust to dust’. But I confess to being deeply touched by that act of compassion and love. 

There are many ways to say good bye. Some of us light candles. Some of us place bottles in the ocean. Both heal the heart and both warm the soul.



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