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.
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."