This is not your regular funeral. Guests aren’t dressed in black; they’re wearing costumes of eggs and bacon, pancakes and syrup, and chicken and waffles instead. The casket isn’t decorated with flowers; it’s draped in fruits of all varieties. And as the preacher speaks, the family members don’t wipe their tears with a handkerchief, but wipe their mouths with a napkin, for they’re in the middle of eating breakfast. The deceased loved food, and so his funeral is dedicated to the happiest moments of his life: mealtimes.
“We believe funerals are a time to celebrate life, not mourn death,” says John Beckwith Jr., the funeral director of Golden Gate Funeral Homes in Dallas, Texas, on the TV show "The Best Funeral Ever," then adds, “We throw a full blown celebration.”
The concept of a “fun funeral” seems to be gaining popularity, and the instinct to hold one is understandable: rather than mourn one’s passing, family and friends may wish to celebrate their loved one’s life. Yet, “fun funerals” could be perceived as frivolous and bad mannered – even offensive. In Jewish tradition, they would be considered unkosher.
Jewish tradition places great value on the communal nature of burying the dead. This is reflected in the Hebrew word for funeral, levayah, which also means “accompanying” or “escorting.” Furthermore, Jewish tradition commands us to burry the dead with deep respect and humility. The rabbis of the Talmudic era take a basic biblical injunction (Deuteronomy, 21:22-23) that commands immediate burial, and create a category of Jewish law, kvod hamet, devoted to honoring the dead. That honor includes every aspect of death – from caring for the body in preparation for immediate burial to the design of the simplest funeral service.
Every aspect of this period is meant to honor the person, their life and their body as a sacred vessel of a holy soul. From guarding the body from death until burial; to deliberately and modestly washing the body; to the burial of the body unboxed in the ground or placed in a plain coffin. All of the laws and customs surrounding death are intended to create a modest time of remembrance, and an honorable funeral focused on evoking the sadness and loss we feel that the deceased no longer walks this earth.
The time surrounding our loss is intended to focus not on frivolity, but on the holy life, the sacred lessons and love the deceased shared with the world. We are charged not to celebrate, but to complete the work of ushering the body out of this world in a humble and simple manner. Hence, the term chesed shel emet, or “true kindness,” is used to describe the acts required of those friends and family charged with burial. It is the ultimate kindness not only because it cannot be paid, but because chesed shel emet is an act of true loyalty. A task the deceased cannot do for herself.
While the desire to celebrate a person’s life and be joyous at the gifts they gave their world is understandable, there is a fine line between joy and disrespect. The Jewish tradition demands we ensure a sacred end, where our focus is on honoring the dead by creating a space and time for the loss we feel. While we hope to experience moments of sacred laughter or joy as we reflect on the person’s life, we must always maintain kvod hamet, respecting the dead, when we bury them.
Though modern society may focus thinking positively and having fun, Judaism asks that we view death differently. Neither kvod hamet nor chesed shel emet are available at a funeral that is designed to be fun. In sadly mourning the dead, we can both honor our tradition and give true respect to the person we loved in life and will continue to love in spirit.
Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabielianna.com