Women at a Funeral: The Last Act of Kindness

I want to change the world, to amend it. And there is also what to amend in the cemetery as in life. Our society, in this matter, is tarrying
Dr. Channa Pinchasi is a Research Fellow in the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. She is the Director of the Maskilot program and guides research teams at the Center for Judaism and the State Policy. Channa was the Deputy Director of Be’eri and Director of the Be’eri School for Teacher Education at the Institute for 7 years. She received her PhD in gender studies from Bar-Ilan

Last week I accompanied an acquaintance on her final journey. Funerals are often abrupt interruptions of our busy lives, forcing us to reflect momentarily on the transience of our existence. Afterwards, most of us tend to take up life where we left off as quickly as possible. This time, however, I chose not to flee back into the routine of daily life but to devote some thought to the issue.

In the past, the “wailing woman” (mekonenet-professional mourner) was a fixture at Jewish funerals. The Mishna says: “Even a poor man shall bring no fewer than two flutes and one wailing woman” (Ketubot 4:4) – a husband was obligated to procure a “wailing woman” for his wife’s funeral. It was a society in which the task of rousing emotions fell under the purview of women – their weeping was meant to inspire the same in others.

Nowadays, the female role at funerals is mainly that of onlooker. The most righteous women engage in the ritual purification of the body prior to burial. And true, at times women will eulogize the deceased, and a small number will even be bold enough to recite kaddish.

The halakhic prohibition barring women from taking an active part in burials derives mainly from concerns over the “inclination,” the sexual temptation (of men), that halakha states is (also) aroused at cemeteries. Due to these concerns, halakhic decision makers in the past occasionally went so far as to rule against women’s participation in funerals. I would imagine that intuitively, most of us feel that in today’s world, where it is commonplace for religious people to frequent cafe’s where young waitresses take customers’ orders, standing alongside women at graveside eulogies is not as charged an event as it once might have been.

When we, heaven forbid, find ourselves bereaved, we don’t have the emotional wherewithal or spare time to fight representatives of the establishment, to make strident demands that divert attention from the deceased and our loss, even if this entails painfully conceding the right to hold a funeral that respects the wishes of both dead and living alike. Therefore, though the heart dictates otherwise, it is wiser not to repress these issues but to work them out while life still follows its normal, blessed course.

Contemplation of women and their funerals led me to consider my own funeral. I decided to devote thought to this matter: I studied the halakchic sources and consulted with Rabbi Riskin, the rabbi of my community, Efrat. My suggestions for my funeral were acceptable to him and some he even enthusiastically supported.

It’s true that these matters are my own private affair. Yet I believe they merit a column because through revealing them, I seek to initiate a new discussion, albeit an uneasy one, about women’s funerals. Though I know the topic is intimidating, I hope that women will dare to think about it, to discuss it aloud and to express their last wishes, though they may still be very young with their whole lives ahead of them. I believe that honoring the dead is an important value that pertains directly to respect for the living; for those that will ritually rinse their hands when departing the cemetery and for those that won’t. Here are the specifics:

I would like to ask for a last act of kindness. This request is directed at my friends, neighbors, and female family members and goes even further perhaps. When I die there will be a funeral, there will be eulogies, and my daughters will say kaddish. But I also want you to carry the funeral bier, upon which my shrouded body will lie. Do not be afraid, come close, and together bear me to my resting place. Following your example, I would hope that other women would be emboldened to step forward, to approach me for the last time and say farewell.

When the gravesite is reached and my body lowered into the ground, I want the women to fill in the grave. Grab the shovels and with the life force inside you, heave the dirt into the pit. Shoulder to shoulder, sisters standing together. These are silent moments. One can hear, I know, the thud of the shovels as they dig into the rounded mounds and the falling of the earth into the pit.

Again, kaddish will be recited and I will absolve everyone and you will all begin to depart. Then, I ask that all the women stand in two rows of consolers and let my daughters pass between you and feel your feminine support and consolation. There is so much comfort to be found between these rows of women.

These words represent my last will and testament but do not worry, I am not ill, thank God. Plain talk about death will not hasten it. The Lord, Master of the Universe, apportions life to all creatures and charity, as you know, will forestall death. It’s just that I want to change the world, to amend it. And there is also what to amend in the cemetery as in life. Our society, in this matter, is tarrying.

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