Social Action Aspects of Death and Mourning

Giving charity, time, and effort is a traditional and significant way of honoring the memory of one who has died.

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On hearing news of a death

On returning home from a funeral

After paying a Shiva visit

On attending or hearing of an unveiling

On a yahrzeit

On visiting a cemetery

After Yizkor services

Before every Shabbat

Every time you say Kaddish

On the birthday of a loved one who has died

On attending a wedding, bar mitzvah, or Brit

 Whenever a loved one's favorite charity sends a solicitation

(Based on Danny Siegel, "19 Occasions for Giving Tzedakah," Gym Shoes and Irises: Personalized Tzedakah)

Beyond Money

Mourners can keep their loved ones' values and beliefs alive in the world by committing time and effort to a worthy cause. From volunteering in the soup kitchen where she used to work, to welcoming out-of-towners visiting sick relatives in the hospital, to setting up a synagogue bereavement support group, helping others embodies the Jewish idea or principle of gemilut hasadim--acts of lovingkindness. The Talmud has high praise for such efforts: "He who gives a coin to a poor man is rewarded with six blessings. But he who encourages him with friendly words is rewarded with 11" (Bava Batra 9a).

[Jewish] tradition singles out six particular acts as gemilut hasadim: providing clothes for the naked, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, accompanying the dead to the grave, providing for brides, and offering hospitality to strangers.(Sotah 14a, Eruvin 18a, Shabbat 127a-b). These deeds considered especially holy because, according to rabbinic legend God performed them for human beings. In the Midrash, God attended Eve at her wedding to Adam, comforted Isaac as mourned for his father, and buried Moses (Sotah 14a).

Mourners who are attracted to the idea of donating time as mitzvah of remembrance should choose a labor of love and not a penance. If you hate answering phones, don't volunteer for a phonathon, even if it's a cause you hold dear; find another way to serve.

Three of the six acts of gemilut hasadim are particularly resonant for mourners: visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and showing respect for the dead. Bereaved people who found consolation in Jewish tradition and within their communities some­times wish to "return the favor" by getting involved in programs and committees directed toward other mourners, or even starting new programs for unmet needs. For example, a person who fell completely unprepared to mourn Jewishly might help organize adult education programs about the Jewish traditions for death and mourning.

People who volunteer for these kinds of programs usually have firsthand experience of loss. Working with others who under­stand the ongoing process of grief can be a source of fellowship and comfort as well as a real blessing to those in immediate need. [The chapters on "Taking Comfort" and "Bibliography and Resources" in Saying Kaddish, the book from which this article is excerpted, have more information.]

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.