One of the greatest challenges that rabbis face is to help families sort through Jewish burial practices. More than 40 rabbis, chaplains, and mortuary and cemetery officials convened October 23 to discuss Jewish burial traditions—and how to help families heal after losing a loved one. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple gave the keynote address at the half-day seminar for chaplains and clergy held at The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center in Los Angeles.
“The greatest decline has been in the notion of Kavod HaMet (honoring the dead) – the notion that the body retains any rights,” said Wolpe, named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post. “Part of reviving Jewish burial practices is reviving the idea of Kavod HaMet . . . Judaism believes in the sanctity of the body. We worship the God given-ness of the body.”
The seminar drew congregational rabbis, Jewish chaplains and staff who work in funeral homes, cemeteries and beyond. The event was sponsored by the Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California/The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
“Everyone in the audience was able to learn new things,” said Rabbi Sarah Hronsky of Temple Beth Hillel, Funeral Practices Committee chair and treasurer of the Board of Rabbis. “We also expanded the participants’ ability to educate our greater community and keep up the mission of Jewish burial.”
Breakout sessions included a Q&A with funeral directors on the costs of Jewish burial, a video and discussion of traditional tahara – ritual washing of the deceased, and a text study with program ideas for educating families and synagogue members.
In the afternoon, participants also discussed the movement toward “green burial,” in a panel discussion called “Dispelling the Myths about Jewish Burial.” “People are asking for green burial, so we’re developing a section where there will be no (cement) vaults, no casket required – it will be a true shroud burial,” said Paul Goldstein of Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary. Hronsky also noted that traditional Jewish burial is an inherently green practice, as it involves no embalming and no air pollution (as cremation does).
Many families, Wolpe noted, tell rabbis that they feel obligated to honor their late loved one’s wishes to be cremated or to forgo traditional Jewish burial rites. “But I would say, the funeral is also for the living,” he said.
“Judaism believes that there’s greater wisdom in the collective tradition,” Wolpe said. “This person only died once, but the Jewish tradition has witnessed millions and millions of deaths.”
For more information and resources on Jewish burial practices or the Funeral Practices Committee, visit boardofrabbis.org