I have written several posts about funeral etiquette in the past. One area that is always confusing is what to say to the mourners.
In Jewish tradition we are not supposed to greet the mourners. This means the primary mourners which are the immediate family (spouse/partner, children, siblings, parents). We are not supposed to go up to them at the funeral and shake their hands. If they are sitting out with the rest of those gathered rather than traditionally in the family room (which in Jewish tradition was designed precisely so the mourners could not be greeted by those who came to the funeral), we are NOT supposed to go over to them. That seems counter-intuitive in our day an age when in genteel society we express our condolences, sympathies and caring by greeting those with a loss.
But Jewish tradition makes sense. Families are usually not in a space to be overwhelmed by having to take care of those who come to pay their respects. The mourning family shouldn’t be in a position to “host” the funeral or the “shiva” gathering afterwards. The family is taken care of by allowing their grief to flow. The family is supposed to by taken care of by their friends and community. In fact in still in some Jewish communities there are neighbors and friends who will arrange the food and drinks and minyan (prayer service) at the home following the burial service. This was the responsibility of the synagogue community and/or group of friends. But in this day and age so many people don’t belong to a spiritual community or synagogue. It sadly falls on the family to arrange the food and gif they are gathering at a home after for the traditional meal of consolation. It was considered a great mitzvah to help a family with the shiva arrangements by sending food or hen you make a shiva call, bringing a meal over with you. In some communities still people take turns to insure the family doesn’t have to worry about basic needs during the week of mourning (shiva). So friends and family will supply all of their meals and food enough to receive callers.
In Los Angeles there is a business called SHIVA SISTERS that will for a fee make all the arrangements for your week of Shiva. I know the owners, Danna Black and Alison Moldo, they are dedicated and spiritual women who can make a difference for your family if you don’t have a community to surround you at that time. They know what to do and how to do it.
In Jewish tradition we are not to speak to mourners unless they speak first. It gives the mourner an opportunity to reflect or to cry or to be quiet if they want. And even though silence can be awkward, sometimes that is exactly what we need. A quiet presence. That speaks volumes without a single word being uttered.
The traditional words said to a mourner is “May God comfort you among those who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem.” In other words, God is present with you in your grief as I am and I am a representative of that Divine love and a messenger in conveying it to you.
I hope knowing more about these funeral customs will help you the next time you attend a Jewish funeral.