A Psychological Interpretation of the Laws of Mourning

The actions required of mourners following the death of close relatives help them to confront the reality of the death, to work through feelings of ambivalence, and to express grief and anger.

Print this page Print this page

Excerpted with permission from “The Psychological Wisdom of the Law” in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).

When death occurs, Jewish law demands that immediate plans be made for burial. This is in accord with the ancient belief that it was a great dishonor and disrespect not to inter the dead. Making funeral plans serves as a necessary activity for the mourner at the beginning of the grief process. The mourner reaffirms his concern for the dead through actions which serve at the same time to overcome his wish for identifi­cation and incorporation with the lost loved one. The onen [a mourner from the time of death through the funeral] through his actions experiences the fact that he is "not dead," not still and lifeless, as he may consciously or unconsciously feel or wish himself to be.

During this first period of grief there is an intense desire on the part of the bereaved to do whatever he can for the de­parted. Jewish tradition meets this need by placing the respon­sibility for all the funeral arrangements on the mourner, not by shielding and excusing him from these tasks. It even releases the onen from the obligation to perform any positive religious­ commandments, which on all the other days of his life are bind­ing, so that he may devote himself instead to these burial pre­parations and arrangements.

Facing the Reality of Death

A funeral according to halakhah [Jewish law] emphasizes that death is death. Realism and simplicity are the characteristics of the Jewish burial. In this respect it stands in clear contrast to the American funeral ritual, which, as Dr. Vivian Rakoff has said, "is constructed in such a way as to deny all the most obvious implications." Such modern American customs as viewing the body, cosmetics, elaborate pillowed and satined coffins, and green artificial carpeting that shields the mourners from seeing the raw earth of the grave are all ways in which the culture enables us to avoid confronting the reality of death.

Other as­sociated practices such as sedating the mourners, hurrying them away from the grave, and keeping children away from the cemetery are part of the same pattern and are to be de­plored. They only serve to reinforce feelings of unreality: "This isn't really happening" or "He isn't really dead." Whenever American Jews adopt such customs they cheat them­selves of the valuable and healing grief work that is built into the Jewish funeral. "The disservice that the modern funeral's denial of death does to the surviving families and the rightness of expressing grief in passionate form should be publicized and explained."

Dealing With Ambivalence and Unresolved Grief

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Audrey Gordon

Audrey Gordon is assistant professor of community health science in the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, and is an expert on current thinking about death and dying. As a graduate student, she worked with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She is the co-author of the book They Need to Know: How to Teach Children about Death.