Rabbi will reflect on Jewish rituals of grief

Speaker: A Pikesville funeral home's annual lecture series will offer insights on the natural process of mourning.

May 23, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Why do Jewish families bury their loved ones as soon as possible after death? What is the origin for other Jewish traditions, such as sitting in mourning for seven days after the funeral and throwing handfuls of dirt into the grave?

Those are all part of the Jewish approach to the mourning process, said Rabbi Maurice Lamm, author of "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning." Lamm will offer his insights tonight as keynote speaker at the third annual Irvin B. Levinson Memorial Lecture Series on Death, Dying and Bereavement. Ellen Zinner, a licensed psychologist and grief therapist, also is due to speak on "How To Be Your Own Grief Counselor."

The lecture series, sponsored by Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home and Jewish Family Services, begins at 6 p.m., at the funeral home, 8900 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville.

In addition to the lecture series, the funeral home offers a 500-volume bereavement library and sponsors grief support groups.

"We feel that ... the bereavement and grief process starts when someone has a loss and lasts into the months and into the years," said Ira J. Levinson, vice president of the funeral home, the local Jewish community's largest.

Lamm, an Orthodox rabbi and a professor at New York's Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary, said the Jewish approach toward grief makes sense when viewed from a psychological point of view.

"There is a great respect for the emotion in Judaism," Lamm said.

"For example, in Christianity, you have an extended time before burial, sometimes four or five days. The body lies in state in the church or funeral home," he said. "This could never happen in Judaism, because the Bible says in no fewer than three places that a body unburied is a shame to the deceased. Consequently, in the Jewish view, there was a rush to bury."

But when it comes to grieving, the approaches are reversed.

"In Judaism, you have the burial. Then you have to sit and wait seven days at home [known as shivah], because we believe emotions are learned and unlearned gradually," he said. "You cannot go from death to work. You have to come off of that severe trauma."

Part of dealing with that trauma is participating in the burial, Lamm said.

"The burial has to be done by people. It's not to be done by machine," he said.

Jewish tradition "requires people who come to place earth into the grave and literally to bury, cover over the casket; ... it requires human beings' involvement, rather than giving it over to a funeral director," he said.

One of the most important things tradition teaches about death, Lamm said, is that grieving is a natural process. "Grief is a potential spark for growth," he said.

When talking about the strange ways people express grief, Lamm tells the story of a young wife he met in Los Angeles whose husband died suddenly.

"She never cried. She took over the business, took care of the kids," he said. Years later she remarried "a guy she hates. One day he drops dead. She goes bananas, cries endlessly."

Why would she express grief for the husband she didn't love, and none for the one she did?

"The answer was almost simple," Lamm said. "She couldn't cry because of the children. There was never time when it was appropriate. When another husband died, it was suddenly appropriate, and she blew a gasket."

The suppressed grief never went away, he said, but took 20 years to express itself. It is far healthier to deal with such emotions up front, said Lamm.

"The best thing is to express grief and to do the agenda of growth, which is telling the story," he said. "Bringing the story into focus enables the griever to deal with it in an intelligent way."

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