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More on Funeral Etiquette

I have had a lot of comments and messages regarding my ongoing series on Funeral and synagogue etiquette.  Seems like a lot of people really need to know how to navigate that which many of us in the “Jewish” business have assumed.  So in an effort to educate and to help today we will explore more etiquette around the funeral.

One trend that is a cause for concern is the “hesped.”  The hesped is what we often call the eulogy. But it is different in that a hesped is supposed to tell it like it was.  Meaning that tact matters but if the person was wonderful –say that.  If they could be difficult say that.  A eulogy differs because it typically praises (which is the root word) rather than reflects the life of the individual.   How many times have you gone to a funeral and listened to a eulogy and you wondered who they were talking about?

But there is another alarming trend in funerals and that is the lengthening of the service. It seems as Jews give up on observing the customs of shiva-or the week of mourning where family and community would hang out, share stories and memories and meals and prayers the funeral gets longer and longer.  This is primarily because there are way too many eulogies and speeches.

After a while they all sound alike.  Sorry but its true.  A Jewish funeral service would take 30 minutes plus the interment. Now they stretch on to an hour or more.  People who came to pay their respects are held hostage.  And so few people go back to a home to observe the mourning customs and rituals and where others can bring comfort, food, and stories.

In a different era a community of friends would come together to ensure that the mourners had food to eat and a meal of consolation.  Now because people often live so far away from where their loved one is buried (if they are buried at all) there is a gathering in a restaurant, hotel or none at all.

There is a need to gather together after the funeral.  We do a disservice to our grief process to short change the after-funeral gathering of family and friends.

The rabbi and cantor have special training to help you the mourner conduct a dignified, appropriate service including delivering a hesped.   Let them help you.  In Jewish tradition the mourners, spouse, siblings and children do not have to speak at all.

There was wisdom in this idea. The mourners are to be taken care of by others.

Another area is how to have a rabbi and cantor conduct the service.  First this is one of the many reason a family or a person belongs to a congregation.  Having a rabbi and cantor who really know the deceased and their family makes a huge difference in the meaning and quality of the funeral.  When that is impossible consult your mortuary they may be able to recommend a local rabbi and cantor to conduct the service.

In either case one should be prepared to pay or donate to the rabbi’s/cantor’s discretionary fund.

If it is your rabbi from your congregation it is appropriate to make a donation to their discretionary fund in memory of the deceased.  One of the prayers of the funeral, the El Maleh Rachamim prayer even speaks about giving tzedakah in memory of the deceased.

If it a rabbi and/or cantor be prepared to pay  them for their time and effort.  In some communities you can arrange for the funeral home/mortuary to include the rabbi’s/cantor’s honorarium on the bill for the funeral so that you have only one total to pay.  In other communities this is n’t  possible and a check directly to the rabbi and or cantor is appropriate.

Do pay them in advance of the service. Bring a check before the service starts. After the service the last thing you will want to remember are these kinds of details.

How much is enough?  In the Los Angeles area there is a Board of Rabbis standard honorarium.  This is $500 for a funeral.  It may vary in other communities.  In New York for example a funeral can be an all day affair because the service is often in a Funeral home and then there is a long drive to New Jersey or Queens for burial.  This needs to be remembered and factored into the honorarium given.

It may say seem crass to discuss this but this is how rabbis and cantors make a living.  Just like lawyers charge a fee for their services or your dentist.  Rabbis officiate at weddings and funerals.

But when we belong to a congregational community this is the insurance you are giving yourself of having a rabbi and/or cantor you can call upon in time of need.

3 thoughts on “More on Funeral Etiquette”

  1. If the deceased has been ill for a long time, and it seems more of a blessing that they passed, I have trouble saying “I’m sorry” to the bereaved. Just say it no matter what the circumstances?

  2. Is it better to take food to the house than not to? There usually seems to be too much food, and wasting food goes against the grain (my grain).

  3. Thank you, Denise. This is very helpful. I would add a practical suggestion: “Turn off your cell phone (or put it on vibrate) before you enter the place where the funeral is held and at the shivah home.” Ed, I think it’s best to take food, but only if you can meet the family’s dietary needs, e.g., kashrut, vegetarian, whatever.

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