In Lieu of Flowers…

In Lieu of Flowers…

Part of my job at funerals is to help transport flowers. There are casket sprays of flowers, standing or ‘cemetery flowers,’ artificial flowers, flowers in vases, flowers in pots, flowers in baskets, flowers in the shape of a cross or a heart or just about anything you can think of, flowers for boutonnieres, flowers, flowers, flowers. You get the picture. I can’t think of any funerals I’ve been a part of that have not included some sort of flowers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently bad about flowers, it’s just that I see a lot of them, and moving them around can get old. They are moved around the funeral home, then to the place of the funeral, then to the place of burial, then to the grave or the family’s home… There are fiascoes with flowers losing their life too soon, or being the wrong color, or getting delivered too late, or forgotten at some point along the way. But there are also beautiful moments with flowers where they are sent from friends and relatives who cannot attend the funeral, and flowers do have a way of being very meaningful and bringing a certain pleasantness to a dreary situation.

Flower's for Princess Diana's Funeral
Flower’s for Princess Diana’s Funeral

There is a puzzling thing about the tradition of sending flowers to funerals: flowers die. They are colorful and they usually smell nice, but as soon as they are cut, they die. When left at a cemetery, they rarely last longer than a few days. Even the artificial ones fade with time in the sunlight and get blown away by wind.

I don’t think flowers are a bad thing at funerals, but I do think they are better in moderation. Also, in some cases, flowers are just not practical, such as if the family is from out of town and could not travel with flowers conveniently. One alternative to flowers is to have memorials made in memory of a person. In obituaries, you’ll often see the phrase, “In lieu of flowers memorials may be made to…..” as a way to direct giving to charity or hospice programs. Other alternatives are food items, cards, and short phone calls or visits to the home.

Flowers in Funeral Procession
Flowers in Funeral Procession

Most cultures incorporate flowers in some aspect at funerals. In some circles, however, flowers are considered inappropriate. Jewish funerals, for example, are solemn occasions and do not have flowers of any kind. Instead, Jewish tradition is to place small stones on graves. The reasons behind this fascinating tradition are varied, and the origins are up for debate. I ran across a beautiful story of how shepherds used to keep stones in a sling to account for how many sheep were with them. The stones on the grave, therefore, hark back to those times and serve as a way of asking the Lord to watch over the soul of the departed, as a shepherd does over the flock. Many say the custom is carried down from the ancient days of building altars to commemorate places and events and of burying the dead along roadways and marking those graves with stones (known as building a cairn). It is thought that this act of assembling any physical structure having to do with a grave or a meaningful location has an incredible impact on how the place or the grief is processed and remembered.

Stones on the Grave of Oskar Schindler
Stones on the Grave of Oskar Schindler

Even today, Jewish tradition is to place a small stone on a grave when it is visited, as a way of marking the spot in time and space and in memory (seen in a closing scene of Schindler’s List). I suppose flowers do the same thing for many people, but I think there’s something uniquely special about the stones. They are more permanent and weighty and even a little rough and dark, kind of like grief.

I don’t think modern perpetual care cemeteries would be very happy about having a bunch of stones start accumulating on graves or on headstones,

but I think it’s a very thoughtful tradition that can make us stop and think about what we do to honor the memory of those we love and how we can have different physical responses for grief and commemoration.

For more information:

imageWhat have you done or seen done ‘in lieu of flowers?’

Magi, Myrrh, Messiah….. and …Tahara?

Tucked between the familiar refrain of the popular Christmas carol “We Three Kings” lies a lesser known verse alluding to the future death of the newborn baby Jesus.

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star…
Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb…
  O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light…
Fast forward with me if you will from the scene of the Magi to the scene at the cross from the Gospel of John:

…Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:38-40)

Myrrh and aloes, mentioned together in John’s account of Jesus’ burial (above), are plant materials known for their aromas and medicinal benefits. Myrrh, which is a resin, in particular has fixative and antiseptic properties, and thus, is useful when applied to a decaying body. The amount recorded, 75 lbs, is excessive for traditional use, and may point to the great love Joseph and Nicodemus felt for Jesus, like that of Mary as she poured a bottle of expensive perfume on the Messiah’s feet before his arrest. More likely, however, is that since Jesus died the day before the Sabbath (the Jewish holy day when no work is to be done), there was no time to ritually wash and dress his body for burial. The tomb was nearby, so his body was placed there with plenty of myrrh, aloes and spices to last until the first day of the week when the women came to wash and anoint him. Much to their surprise, however, the tomb was empty for he had risen.

Myrrh Resin

While I don’t know of any modern preparations involving myrrh or spices, even today Orthodox Judaism prescribes that a body be buried as quickly as possible. Modern vascular embalming techniques and cremation are typically forbidden in Jewish culture, and in many cases the deceased is buried within 24 hours of death. This guideline is set not only for practical and sanitary considerations, but also as a measure of respect for the deceased. Unnecessary incisions into the body are not permitted, and if autopsy or embalming is required for some reason, all blood or fluids removed from the body at any point must be kept with the body for burial (this also includes bandages, clothing, bedding and other items that may have come in contact with blood or fluids).

In Orthodox Jewish communities today, the sacred act of washing and preparing a body for burial is done by a special group of volunteers known as the Chevra Kadisha. There is a ritual washing, known as the Tahara, in which the body is cleansed from head to toe, right to left, front to back and dressed in white burial clothes. Men and women prepare bodies of members of their own sex. Noise is kept to a minimum and speech is permitted only for reciting prayers or psalms or for simple instructions or short stories. Many Jews believe that the spirit of a body does not fully leave it until a few hours after death, so during the Tahara, members of the Chevra Kadisha are careful to never cross over the top of the body as to not disturb the soul. Tahara is not performed on the Sabbath, neither is burial, and refrigeration of the body is permitted in these cases. The Chevra Kadisha also traditionally provides one member, or Shomer, to stand as guard for the body until burial. Those who participate in such rituals refer to Tahara as a spiritual practice, orienting them with the deeper elements of the Jewish faith, and they regard the duty as a privilege.

As mentioned in a previous post, simplicity and dignity are hallmarks of the Jewish faith. It remains tradition that bodies are dressed in modest white garments and buried in plain wooden boxes without nails, each to draw attention away from displays of wealth and to emphasize equality. Small amounts of dirt from the Holy Land are sprinkled over different parts of the body and caskets remain closed once the body is placed inside. As much as it is possible in modern cemeteries, caskets are buried in a way which allows maximum amount of contact with earth; sometimes meaning that a vault is put upside down over a casket.

Whatever your personal response to this religious group, it is difficult to ignore the high level of responsibility the Jewish community takes on for the care and burial of the dead and for the care of the mourning family. You’ll be hard pressed to find such dedication anywhere else, but it is surprisingly difficult to find consistent or thorough resources which evaluate and shed light on the fullness of significance involved in such sacred tasks. The lack of modern literary and oral guides about death and dying within Jewish culture, especially when compared with present-day knowledge of the rich traditions of Biblical times, is almost absurd. Presumably, this void is linked to the darkness and bewilderment of the shadow created by the Holocaust, a time when death was so heart-breakingly prevalent for Jews. Also, many of these sacred rituals are performed only within the context of Orthodox Judaism, not in all Jewish circles, so the reach is limited. Wherever explanation seems to be lacking for individual customs, however, it seems the community makes up for it in a deep respect for life and for death. As the mystery and uncertainty surrounding some of the lesser understood rituals continues to be disentangled, the foundations of the faith are increasingly strengthened and views of the afterlife are increasingly challenged. It is encouraging that awareness and curiosity about death customs continues to surface within the Jewish community; through it all, a clear focus is kept on maintaining honor in all circumstances and the deep veins of tradition continue to bring structure and purpose to the difficult process of grief.

For more information about Tahara, Chevra Kadisha, and other Jewish terms, visit the following web resources:

I highly recommend watching this PBS Special on Tahara:

Stay tuned for more discussion about Jewish funeral services and grieving practices next month!

Thanksgivukkah 2013. And a little about Jewish Mourning Customs.

This year, 2013, marks a once in a lifetime convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. The “Thanksgivukkah” holiday has sparked some fascinating fusions such as pumpkin challah bread, kosher cornbread, and my personal favorite, the menurkey: part turkey, part menorah. The pictures below speak thousands of words.


I plan on celebrating Thanksgiving in a relatively traditional manner, and given that I am not Jewish and don’t even really know how to spell Hanukkah, I only recently discovered the hybridization of these holidays. I wish I’d had more time to fully grasp the wacky side of it all…

Silliness aside, the traditions associated with both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah serve to carry forward stories, values, and recipes across generations. Social and religious elements come together to create a bountiful, vibrant heritage for many who take part in meaningful holiday customs from year to year.

In the same vein, different cultures and religious traditions dictate customs for mourning, funerals and care of the dead which serve to bring honor and structure to the grieving process.

Jewish culture in particular prescribes a distinct set of rituals surrounding death, indicative of the many rules and procedures pertaining to the faith. Many aspects of Jewish customs are often misunderstood, but I believe there is much value in taking a closer look at the deep-rooted sense of honor pervasive among individual mourning practices.

One of the most well-known Jewish mourning customs is Shiva— you may recognize the phrase, “sitting Shiva.” This 7 day period of mourning begins after the burial of a body and, in the most Orthodox circles, includes tearing of garments, covering mirrors, and not shaving or bathing for the week. By sitting low to the ground and staying mostly in the home, mourners convey a sense of loss dwelling heavily on their hearts. The neglect of physical comforts also brings more emphasis to emotional and spiritual conditions.

Shiva begins after burial, and it is symbolic for switching focus from care of the deceased to care for the mourners. After the initial mourning week of Shiva is over, a Shloshim period of 30 days extends some elements of Shiva, and mourners do not attend social gatherings, shave, or cut their hair. (No-shave-November, anybody??) This time period serves as a transition back to daily life, but leaves room for feelings of loss to exist in a safe environment and helps make known that grief is a process. 

The period of 30 days coincides with the lunar calendar, and it is tied closely with the idea of coming full circle, just as the moon waxes and wanes. Mourners often find comfort in watching light reappear as the moon cycles from new to full. Likewise, comfort is found in having the structure of tradition at the one year anniversary of the death. At this time of natural reflection, known as the “Yahrtzeit,” candles are lit and prayers are recited, and a celebration of life is held.

In the Jewish faith, the respect shown for the dead is very important, as is the simplicity and sacredness of rituals. Jewish funeral traditions shift the center of focus away from death and towards the cycle of life, and there is powerful imagery to help shape and give depth to many of the practices besides the ones listed here.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for Jewish customs surrounding death and mourning, join me next time for discussion about ritual care of the deceased and Jewish funeral traditions. If I’ve whetted your appetite for pumpkin challah or other Thanksgivukkah treats, I’m sorry: I’m fresh out.

Read more about Thanksgivukkah here

And share your thoughts in the comment section!