Understanding Jewish Funerals with Rabbi Arthur Baseman

In this episode John McQueen interviews Rabbi Arthur Baseman, retired spiritual leader at Temple B’nai Israel

Spiritual leader at Temple B'nai Israel from 1969 - 2008

Spiritual leader at Temple B’nai Israel from 1969 – 2008

John McQueen:  [0:00] Welcome to Anderson McQueen’s radio show, “Undertakings.” I’m John McQueen, president and owner of Anderson McQueen Funeral Homes. As always, on this show we undertake those subjects that you want to know about.

[0:14] Remember, if there’s a specific topic you would like for us to talk about or if you have a question you would like to ask one of our upcoming guests, please email them to radio@andersonmcqueen.com. We always do our best to include everyone’s request if at all possible.

[0:34] Our topic today is understanding Jewish funeral customs. Our special guest today is Rabbi Arthur Baseman, who is the former spiritual leader for 39 years with Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater who will help us in understanding this worthy subject.

[0:51] Welcome, Rabbi Baseman.

Rabbi Arthur Baseman:  [0:53] Thank you, John. A pleasure to be with you and your terrific facility here.

John:  [0:57] Thank you, sir. We look forward to spending some time together today and learning more about the Jewish funeral customs.

[1:05] As we get started, I thought maybe we’d kick it off a little bit about, if you wouldn’t mind, sharing what is the Jewish view on death, to start.

Rabbi Baseman:  [1:15] An excellent question.

John:  [1:16] Thank you.

Rabbi Baseman:  [1:17] Judaism is primarily concerned and preoccupied with life, one’s life on Earth. The rules of Torah are a preparation for life, for living a full life. We’re to live by them, by those rules.

[1:38] The Torah tells us constantly, “Choose life that you may live.” There isn’t so much interest in what happens after death.

[1:50] Because of that unknown, which unfortunately is inevitable for all of us, there have been some Jewish customs that have been recognized as meaningful for dealing with death.

John:  [2:07] Following up with that, could you give us a little background on the actual Jewish customs as they do relate to funerals?

Rabbi Baseman:  [2:17] Sure. Early burial tends to be the primary goal once death occurs. Burial should take place as soon as possible. The primary customs for Jewish death are focused on treating the deceased with reverence and respect and showing deep concern for the welfare of the living. Those two aspects, reverence for the deceased and concern for the living, seem to guide the preparation and performance of these customs.

[3:04] Early burial tends to show respect for the deceased and enabling the family to recognize the reality of death and to move forward in facing it and grieving appropriately for it. The first act would be a washing of the body. The term for that is tevilah. It’s a Hebrew word. Followed by dressing the loved one in a shroud, in many cases. Many families, however, opt to have a favorite dress or a favorite suit in which they want their loved one to be garbed.

[4:02] All of these customs are open to accommodation and deviation for the family. Because the services optimally for the living.

[4:16] At the funeral the prayers and psalms are reciting, invoking God’s blessing on the loved one. A black ribbon is torn and placed on an outer garment. The more observant practice would be to place the ribbon for a parent who has died on the left side, closest to the heart, and for any other relative on the right side.

[4:45] Some families don’t want to make that distinction between the relatives who are present and most will have all the ribbons placed on each person’s life side, closest to the heart.

[5:02] The service includes the Kaddish prayer, which literally means sanctification, which is basically designed to praise God and affirms relationship to God in spite of the sorrow of death.

[5:26] After the service is over, the family most often will attend a service at the cemetery where the casket will be lowered into the grave.

[5:42] The casket choice, again, is open to family taste. The more observant will choose a casket that is not embellished, that is primarily only of wood, iron being recognized as the element of weapon. But again, families that are not quite as observant might choose a more embellished and adorned casket. Their rabbi will understand that it’s up to the family to make that decision.

[6:18] After the service at the grave is finished, the concluding act could be the placement of earth on the casket. If a shovel is used, it’s usually turned upside‑down. Because this final act of placing earth on the casket should not be an easy task, and is considered to be the most benevolent act of kindness because it’s one that can’t be returned. You can’t be repaid by the loved one.

[6:52] I think that covers the more dramatic customs that involve the actual funeral service and burial. Often earth from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, which many funeral directors, and I know you do, John, provide for a family is placed on the casket as well.

John:  [7:14] Thank you, Rabbi. I’ve learned a few things right there myself. I always knew that the Jewish caskets were typically, and especially our Orthodox Jewish caskets are all made of wood and typically pegged together with wood pegs and either no or very little metal, as much as possible.

[7:36] I never knew, though, that the reason behind the metal side was the fact that the iron is considered a weapon or is used for weapons. I learned something there, so thank you, as well as with the shovel. I knew we always needed to have the shovel out there for you to be able to place some dirt on the casket, but I never realized about it being upside‑down as to what the significance was. Thank you for that.

[8:03] One of our listeners had emailed a question to us about, what is the appropriate dress for a Jewish funeral, and am I supposed to cover my head if I’m coming for a service? We were hoping maybe you could answer that for them.

Rabbi Baseman:  [8:18] The dress can be anything that you’re comfortable with, which you would be wearing to a synagogue or a church or any funeral service of any religious faith. The head covering is to show reverence for God and there are many Jewish men who don’t wear a yarmulke, a kippah, a skullcap, because it’s a custom that they’re not identifying with.

[8:52] Yet there will be many non‑Jewish men at a funeral service that will put one on once they see them there. It’s a custom, and custom is open to interpretation by each individual.

John:  [9:04] That was going to be a follow‑up question I had for you was, we actually had received a question as to what is a kippah or a yarmulke, and if I’m not Jewish, do I wear one at the service?

Rabbi Baseman:  [9:18] It doesn’t hurt to put it on, and often once it’s on you don’t even know you’re wearing it. But it is a symbol of reverence for God. It’s an acknowledgement that God is above, figuratively, and that you’re respectful of that.

John:  [9:37] Another question we had was, how early should you arrive for the Jewish funeral? I’ve heard different things as to whether or not you should get there real early for the service, more like we do on the, probably on the Christian side of the burials or if you should arrive closer to service time. We wanted to get your insight.

Rabbi Baseman:  [9:58] From my experience, arriving as close to the service time as possible is more likely the appropriate thing, unless you wanted to spend some time with the family. They’re usually there 45 minutes to an hour before the service, but they want to be alone with their loved one. But if you’re a close friend, you could come a little earlier than others, but to be punctual is often a good virtue.

John:  [10:22] I know my parents always tried to build that virtue of punctuality into me as a kid growing up. As a guest, if I’m not a family member, obviously, but if I was a guest attending the service, typically is there a proper place for me to sit? I’ve always found usually at church it seems like we all sit in the back. Is there a proper place that I need to sit as a guest coming for a Jewish funeral?

Rabbi Baseman:  [10:50] Not necessarily. Usually the first rows are left for family and relatives, but there’s no seating arrangement that’s militantly observed. You can sit wherever you like to sit. You are right. It’s contrary to the bus experience. Move to the end of the bus. People tend to sit in the back. But moving to the front is not a wrong thing to do.

John:  [11:20] Another question that oftentimes is asked is will the casket be open? In the Jewish faith, is there typically an open‑casket viewing, or is it more of a closed‑casket‑type situation?

Rabbi Baseman:  [11:33] Typically it’s closed. An attempt to demonstrate the reality of death. That the loved one is no longer with us. The loved one is with God. Some families will insist on open casket. Depending upon the rabbi’s disposition, sometimes that can be accommodated. But usually it’s a closed casket.

[11:59] I want to mention some customs that are home observed as well, sometimes. Depending upon the observance pattern of the family. In some homes if a visit is made, and it is encouraged to come and spend some time with the mourners to comfort them, mirrors are sometimes covered. The reason for that is primarily you shouldn’t be concerned about appearance. You should focus on the loved one, your loss, and working through the grief.

[12:36] There’s also a linkage to the fact that once upon a time people thought that the soul of an individual was mirrored in the mirror. It was liable to be fair game for the angel of death that might be still hovering amid, it’s an ancient custom, but sometimes the mirror is covered for the cosmetic issue.

[13:02] Sometimes a family will be sitting on uncomfortable stools rather than a chair to demonstrate that they are really feeling their sorrow a great deal. Observance of such a memorial attitude can sometimes last a week, which is called the shiva, meaning seven. Though many families today will observe three days and feel that they have satisfactorily fulfilled that aspect of their grieving and then want to get back into the stream of life.

John:  [13:39] Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who’s a very noted grief psychologist that we’ve had come and speak many times here to the community, I know he always says that when words are inadequate, that ritual actually provides comfort.

[13:57] I’m sure for many families these different rituals, although some of them may have had different meanings many years ago. Actually provide the family with that comfort. It seems that many of the beliefs that our different faiths have, there’s always some underlying meaning behind it.

[14:18] This is just a curious question now that you brought up. Sitting shiva is for seven days, but now a lot are doing it for three. Do you think that that has been a cultural change from the religious aspect, or do you think it’s more, I hate to say it, but in corporate America we give people nowadays three days off for bereavement days [laughs sardonically] and after we expect you to be back at work. Do you think that that’s affected it at all?

Rabbi Baseman:  [14:46] I don’t think so. I think it’s just that in our instantaneous life, we spend three days…Let me get back to work. Let me get back to work. Not that my boss is asking me to or my job is, but I’ve got to maintain my sanity. I want to get back to life. Choose life.

[15:15] Many families will feel that three days…Again, it’s a matter of personal disposition. I’ve often felt, John, how many Judaisms are there in this world? There are as many Judaisms as there are Jews. We all have our different interpretations of our faiths.

John:  [15:36] I think that holds true in all religions.

Rabbi Baseman:  [15:38] I guess it does.

John:  [15:40] Following back up, you were talking about expressing your condolences to families and things, now. I’ve read some things that say that at the funeral home, as an example, or at the synagogue you should not come up and speak to the family, express your condolences there. That should be saved for the shiva at the home. Is that an appropriate statement?

Rabbi Baseman:  [16:05] I’m not comfortable with that. If I’m inclined to say something to the family that is grieving that I share their loss, I knew the loved one, he made a deep or she made a deep impact on me. I like to hear that said to the family. I don’t feel you should restrain from talking to them.

John:  [16:26] That’s good to know, because also oftentimes one of the questions we get asked so much from people, even just about funerals in general, is, “Gosh, I never know what to say to the family when I go to a funeral.” I know from personal experience that when my father‑in‑law passed away this past year and my parents years ago, that it does give you comfort to hear all those people come up to you and tell you how meaningful that person’s life was to them.

Rabbi Baseman:  [16:56] That’s the way to go with it. I wouldn’t say to a person, “I know how you feel.” That I wouldn’t say to them. But say that I want you to know how much your loved one meant to me and if there’s anything I can do to help you. That’s the kind of word that would be welcomed.

John:  [17:20] Thank you. Also, is it appropriate to talk about the afterlife with families?

Rabbi Baseman:  [17:28] I think so. I try in a service to demonstrate that death of the body is not the end. That the soul lives on as part of God. God being spirit, the spirit of this human has now become part of God, and enhances God, strengthens God by what he or she has accomplished in life.

[17:57] Now you know me as a reform rabbi. You are aware, I know, of the three branches of Judaism. The more traditional approach among the more observant is a resurrection of the dead, a bodily resurrection, which can play a role in how they treat the afterlife.

[18:27] Even in terms of preparation for the loved one who’s died, they will not be comfortable with cremation. They will observe and recognize a bodily resurrection as a liberal approach to Judaism, which I represent, which has been comfortable with the procedure of cremation. It’s a matter of rabbinic positioning and family tradition.

John:  [18:57] Along the lines of cremation, nowadays, and you may have read or seen on the news or other things, we were actually the first company in the world to introduce what we call flameless cremation, which is actually a water‑based cremation process. The family still, when the process is complete, will receive back cremated remains. In fact, you actually get back more cremated remains than you do from the fire side.

[19:27] But even myself as Catholic, the Catholic church has changed their standings on cremation a lot too, so over the years. Obviously when I was a young man starting out, I guess you could say the traditional Catholic view was not to have cremation. But nowadays it’s been embraced by the Catholic Church, provided what they would like is that we keep the cremated remains intact.

[19:52] Now is that the same for the Jewish faith? Would it be that you want to keep them intact?

Rabbi Baseman:  [19:56] I commend you on the cremation procedure that you have championed, and congregations on that.

John:  [20:01] Thank you.

Rabbi Baseman:  [20:03] The cremains are not an issue. The issue had been bodily resurrection would not be possible if cremation occurred. If a family is comfortable with the procedure, they’re really not concerned about the cremains in that sense.

John:  [20:23] I know you mentioned earlier about the shiva. I know they say it’s a shiva call. Can you tell us a little bit more about what is a shiva call and there things that I should, if I were to go on a shiva call to the family, is there things that I should or shouldn’t say, or are there things that I should bring to the shiva call, or…?

Rabbi Baseman:  [20:45] Just be human. Just be human. If you’re going to the home right after the service at the cemetery, there might be water placed at the front door. Which a family member or a friend would then pour over their hands to wipe off the dust from the cemetery. It’s just a custom. You probably are still clean and you haven’t done anything that required that, but it’s a custom.

[21:15] There would be a meal of condolence awaiting the family that has been prepared by friends or neighbors or relatives that will be at the home after the service is completed at the cemetery. That will be at the home.

[21:31] At that time, you will find the grieving family will make themselves available. They’ll be sitting with others and probably having a bite to eat as well.

John:  [21:43] I’m sure that you’ve probably found during those shiva calls with the, especially with the meals. Nowadays we, all of our locations have on‑site reception centers. Now I know obviously this would be in the family’s home.

[21:58] But I will say even thinking back to my own parents’ funerals, that that time after the funeral to gather together with family and friends and to share a meal and to make that transition back from the death that was at the funeral to more of the transition back to the living was very helpful to me I know, at least.

Rabbi Baseman:  [22:21] Sure. A lot of reminiscences take place at those meals of condolence meetings where they sit around and they remember what the loved one did here and what he did there and she would do that.

John:  [22:37] How about flowers? Is it appropriate to send flowers to a Jewish funeral?

Rabbi Baseman:  [22:42] The more observant see flowers as something prone to decay and they don’t want that associated necessarily with the funeral. But I personally and the reform movement of Judaism and general has not forbidden flowers being sent. Charitable donations in the name of the loved one are often recognized as acceptable and perhaps preferable, but flowers are never out of taste.

John:  [23:17] That’s good to know. As I shared with you earlier, my mother was a florist for many years. She would make the charitable contribution when they had asked in lieu of flowers to make a donation, but she would still send flowers. She said, “Hey, I’m a florist by heart.”

Rabbi Baseman:  [23:31] Flowers are beautiful.

John:  [23:32] I know we touched on the burial process and how it happens relatively quickly and things like that. But when we go to the cemetery and obviously I’ve been to the cemetery, because I’m the funeral director, so I have to go along. But is the burial process on a Jewish funeral, is that more customarily reserved for family or immediately family and maybe close friends versus everybody? Or is it open to anybody that would want to attend?

[24:03] Then also as a follow‑up to that, if it is open to everyone, is it appropriate for everyone to come up and put a shovel of dirt onto the casket? Or is, again, that reserved for the family?

Rabbi Baseman:  [24:15] Insightful questions. Yes, unless it says private, the service at the cemetery is open. It isn’t only the family that could place earth on the casket. Anyone who feels keenly about the loved one is welcome to do so.

John:  [24:38] That’s good to know. Before I follow‑up with probably my final question for you, are there any other customs that maybe we haven’t talked about today? You’ve shared a lot of great, insightful information with us. Are there any certain things that maybe I haven’t thought to ask that you’d like to touch on that you think our listeners would enjoy?

Rabbi Baseman:  [25:02] A memorial candle is lit at the home upon returning from the cemetery. Annually, on the date of death of the loved one, a memorial candle is lit at the home. The candle that is lit after the funeral service often is a seven‑day candle, a larger candle that will burn for seven days, the shiva period. The memorial candle that is done annually would be a 24‑hour candle.

[25:40] That’s a custom, this annual remembrance. Reciting of the prayer, the kaddish prayer, the sanctification prayer, is often done in the synagogue at services for a year’s time on the part of the family. Just to demonstrate keeping the loved one on their minds. But I think primarily we’ve covered all of the important custom.

John:  [26:07] Great. Rabbi Baseman, I know that you had a long and distinguished career there at Temple B’nai Israel, almost 40 years. Well‑respected in the community and obviously have been there to counsel families and I’m sure parishioners and others throughout the years.

[26:34] I know you and I have had the chance to share some time together occasionally, and I’ve always enjoyed those conversations. How are you enjoying retirement?

Rabbi Baseman:  [26:45] Very much, very much. I’m remembering experiences that I’ve shared with so many people and a very meaningful way. But one that I would like to end with, on a light note, I remember leaving the cemetery after a service for a young man.

[27:08] A gentleman was walking with me, an older man, and he said to me, “You know, Rabbi, it could have been worse.” I looked at him surprised, because this was a young relative that had just been buried. I said, “Why, what could have been worse?” He said, “Well Rabbi, it could have been me.”

[27:28] [laughter]

Rabbi Baseman:  [27:30] That’s the attitude of Judaism is living a life that’s worthy of being one with God. In Judaism, heaven is in unison with God and hell would be remoteness from God. Not torment, but a passing away, no longer having any relationship with the Godly spirit.

[27:58] It’s been a pleasure to be with you, John.

John:  [28:01] Rabbi, it’s been great being with you again too. I just want to thank all of our listeners for listening today to “Undertakings.” Never miss an episode by subscribing to Undertakings at iTunes Store. It’s easy and it’s free. In addition to our podcast, you can also download our free funeral app at the iTunes Store or on the App Store.

[28:25] If you don’t have an iTunes account, you can listen to the show on our blog, which is blog.andersonmcqueen.com, or even read a transcription of today’s show. Remember to email us those questions and show ideas to radio@andersonmcqueen.com. I’m John McQueen with Anderson‑McQueen Funeral Homes, and I thank you for listening to Undertakings.

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