Grieving Jewishly, for the First Time

By Valerie Cooper


I had never sat shiva, or been to a Jewish funeral, until my husband’s grandmother passed away in November 2007. When she died–in the comfort of her home, after several weeks of hospice care–her family gathered to mourn her, out of gratitude for the lessons she had taught us both in life and through her death.

For myself, a practicing Protestant Christian, it was a chance to grieve and celebrate the woman I’d lovingly called “Grandma.” But it was also an education, a lesson in how Jews form a community of support during grieving periods. Sitting shiva as a non-Jew gave me a deeper glimpse of the beautiful traditions–and strong sense of community–that Judaism embodies.

Grandmother's eyeglasses photograph by Earl GrayBut as I learned, grief and togetherness aren’t experienced solely during shiva, the period of deepest mourning following the death of a loved one. The evening before the funeral, family members trickled into town, and we convened with the rabbi to share thoughts and memories of Grandma. In expectation of the coming events, my mother-in-law had sent each of her children a book about Jewish mourning. This wonderful resource prepared my non-Jewish sister-in-law and me for the funeral and shiva services by telling us what to expect. (The shiva, we learned, is usually observed for seven days.)

The following day, all of us gathered at the synagogue for the funeral. In the sanctuary, a simple casket of unfinished knotty pine lay closed. Flowers did not fill the room as I had expected. (Instead of buying flowers, Jewish custom calls for donations to be sent to Jewish charities in memory of the deceased.) Earlier, the rabbi had handed a black ribbon to the immediate family members, including the non-Jews. This was to remind ourselves, and more importantly, other people, that we were mourning. The rabbi instructed us to wear the ribbon, which he then cut with a scissors. (In the past, mourners ripped their clothes, but this tradition has evolved into the current traditions of men cutting their ties and the ribbon-cutting ceremony described above.)

Next for us was the formal service. Most of it focused on God as the Creator, worthy of all praise. The cantor sang Psalms and recited prayers; several family members spoke movingly, and many shed tears. Afterwards, we drove to the Jewish cemetery for a family burial service. Following prayers, each person was invited to take the back of a shovel and gently deposit dirt over the casket three times. The back of the shovel was used to demonstrate that we were not hastening the process of the burial.

After the funeral the family retreated to our grandfather’s house for an afternoon of togetherness. Outside the door lay a pitcher of water and a bowl for cleansing one’s hands. This tradition, to be performed before entering the house, represents the cleansing of death from the graveyard. Soon after we arrived, the rabbi joined us and lit a shiva candle, a special candle that burns for seven days. During the period of shiva, mirrors are traditionally covered and guests remove their shoes and sit on low stools–traditions we did not follow in this instance, but whose symbolism we were mindful of.

The family dined together that night, reminiscing about Grandma and catching up on each other’s lives. As one might expect, the juxtaposition of sadness, on one hand, and the joy of seeing old friends and family, was surreal. After sundown, we joined more than 100 people who had come to the clubhouse of our grandparents’ condo building to observe a shiva service. We did not meet in our grandparent’s house due to space, but shiva ceremonies are often held in the home.

As for the prayer service, it included both Hebrew and English prayers that glorify God. When Hebrew prayers are spoken, I follow along with the English translations and say the prayers within my heart; I find the language to be deep and beautiful. Here, the prayers emphasized God’s authority and His position as the Creator and Judge of the world. We also said the Mourner’s Kaddish, an important Jewish prayer that does not mention death, but instead praises God, affirms His holiness and anticipates the establishment of peace on earth.

The rituals and prayers in the shiva service were moving, and evoked community. Sitting on low stools is a profound symbol of how our viewpoints change after a loss. The symbolism expressed in burying the casket provided an element of finality I had not experienced, ever, at any other funeral.

Collectively, they served to remind me of what I’ll never forget: I had been blessed to know my husband’s grandmother.

About Valerie Cooper

Valerie Cooper is a Physician Assistant in Rochester, Minn. She and her husband Alex have been married for two and a half years. They enjoy their kitten, as well as gardening, hiking, sailing and traveling.