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Why I Cry At Funerals

This week marks a period of national mourning in the Jewish calendar as we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  According to tradition, both the first Temple and the rebuilt second Temple were destroyed on the same day, the 9th of Av, which is now a day of fasting and lamentations.  In anticipation of the fast day, a somber mood prevails from the new moon on the 1st of Av until the 9th, and we refrain from eating meat, drinking wine, attending concerts and participating in joyous events.  Funerals, however, are permitted.

Last year, I buried a friend on the 9th of Av.  It was a typically hot and humid summer day in Atlanta, and the earth itself seemed to exude grief.  This year, I stood with a friend on the 1st of Av as she buried her father, just five years after her mother’s untimely death from cancer.  After the actual burial, during the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, I found myself crying and thinking about a passage from the Mishnah*:

“On the first days of the months…the women may lament and beat their hands….What is lamentation? When all of them lament together.  Wailing? When one cries out and all respond after her; for it is written (Jeremiah 9:19): ‘And teach your daughters wailing, and one another lamentation.’” (Moed Katan 3:9)

Long ago, the role of women at a funeral was to lead the lamentation and wailing.  We were professional mourners, in a sense, responsible for helping others to grieve by leading them in crying.  The public expression of grief at a funeral was also considered an appropriate way to honor the deceased.

Today, people sometimes restrain themselves and thus refrain from crying openly at funerals. Perhaps we feel that grief is the sole privilege of family members, those most directly affected by loss.  But the act of weeping is encouraged for everyone attending a Jewish funeral; not only is crying a means to heal the open wounds in our hearts, but it also provides accompanying music as the deceased is laid to rest.

 


* The Mishnah is a compilation of Jewish laws and customs dating from the first century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.  The generally agreed-upon date of its redaction is circa 200 C.E.

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