Mourning for Grandma
My widowed paternal grandmother just passed away. I have become observant over the past few years, but my father (who is my grandmother’s only son) is not particularly religious. I would like to help, and I would like to see that the funeral takes place in the traditional fashion, but I don’t want to impose on my father at this very difficult time, particularly given the fact the my grandmother was not observant either, and probably would not want any type of religious funeral or burial. What can/should I do to help without being a burden on my family?
First let me extend my heartfelt condolences to you and your family. May the Torah path you’ve chosen be source of merit and spiritual elevation for your departed grandmother’s soul, and may those her mourn her be comforted together with those who mourn over the destroyed Temple, may we merit to see it rebuilt speedily in our days.
As a son, you certainly have a duty to honor and respect your father, particularly in this difficult time of loss, and you must first and foremost be there to comfort and console him, and alleviate him of as many burdens as possible. Anything you do to help ensure that the funeral and burial is done in as Jewish a way as possible is certainly very important, but you must do it in a way that will not upset your mourning father.
That being said, you should gently and patiently explain the Jewish custom, ritual and law, and offer to help in any way. You should be in contact with a local Orthodox rabbi immediately who can explain to you and your father those things that must be done, and regarding what practices there might be room for leniency if your father is not comfortable with them. In addition, the rabbi should take care of all the arrangements that take place behind the scenes such as the guarding of the body, having someone recite psalms (preferably near the body), purification before burial and arranging a proper casket. Even though your grandmother might not have agreed to these things while living, from her perspective now in the world of truth, she’ll appreciate them.
In the meantime, you should also recite psalms and learn mishnayot on behalf of your grandmother, before and after burial, preferably in the house in which she lived, or at least in your father’s house. You can also give charity and light a memorial candle in her honor. If you can encourage your father to do this as well, all the better. But if he cannot or will not, you must do it for her. It is very important to encourage your father to say Kaddish for his mother. Tell him that Jewish sons have been saying Kaddish for their mothers since time immemorial, and in so doing he is connecting himself to the unbroken chain of the Jewish people who honor their parents through life and death. He may need help reading it – get him a transliteration, or even sit with him in order to help him learn to read it in Hebrew.
Regarding the actual funeral ceremony, the rabbi will take care of it, and will tell you before and during the ceremony everything that needs to be done. Again, consult with him beforehand about what must be done, and what might be suspended if it will cause disharmony among the family at that very sensitive hour. Prepare your father regarding the customary rending of the garment. Having a minyan at the funeral so that your father can say the special burial Kaddish is very important. Help him prepare for it, since it is different than the normal Kaddish.
Before the burial, you can also help arrange for the customary meal that takes place after the burial. It should be simple, dignified, kosher (that’s where you fit in) and usually includes hard-boiled eggs, which is a food of mourning since it symbolizes the cycle of life. Afterwards, consult the rabbi about the details regarding your father’s sitting shiva. Hopefully he will be able to say Kaddish regularly. However, since that is usually not the case among the non-observant, you should encourage your father to have someone say Kaddish for the first year, and you should make the arrangement for him (you shouldn’t say Kaddish if both of your parents are living). Normally, this can be arranged through a yeshiva or shul.
Of course, the more you and your father do in honor of your grandmother, the better. You should continue saying psalms and learning mishnayot during the year. Try and encourage your father to go to shul if possible to daven and say Kaddish, and try to foster a relationship between him and the rabbi. He can also donate to charitable Torah causes in her honor. Of course, all this applies to other living relatives, such as your father’s sisters, if he has any. Any good deed done by people who are directly related to the deceased is like a living Kaddish which benefits their soul, simultaneously perpetuating their influence in this world and elevating them in the next.
- We have referred this person to appropriate rabbis in his father’s area.
- While we have recommended to him specific books, there are many good books on this topic in Jewish book stores.