Humanistic Jews approach death in the same way we approach life: realistically. The nature of all living beings is that their existence is finite. Scientists have discovered no evidence that justifies belief in a life hereafter. Consciousness, thinking, and awareness are all functions of the brain. At death, the brain deteriorates with the rest of the body, and there is no longer any kind of awareness possible. Although, as Humanistic Jews, we promise no eternal salvation, we, after accepting the reality that we will die, continue to live life with hope.
A Humanistic philosophy of death:
- Recognizes that, although death may be painful and tragic for those who survive and may be profoundly regretted, there is nothing in death to fear, any more than one fears sleeping. Fearing the pain that may precede death is a much more realistic fear than fearing the nothingness of death itself.
- Respects the intelligence and feelings of mourners by acknowledging their sadness and grief, disbelief, shock, or anger as normal emotions that accompany death, rather than pretending that an incomprehensible, but wonderful, benefit has befallen the deceased.
- Acknowledges that there may be some relief when someone dies after a lengthy illness and that that sense of relief, which is understandable, may give rise to feelings of guilt.
- Respects the life of the deceased by honoring it with a ceremony that celebrates their life.
- Provides memorial ceremonies that, in addition to fully celebrating the individual who has died, help the bereaved cope with their loss with the compassion, loving presence, and support of friends and family.
- Helps to establish the living legacy of their loved one through shared memories.
- Helps the bereaved understand that their loved ones live on through their memories.
The consequence of adopting the Humanistic view of death is the knowledge that all possible purpose and meaning is and must be achieved in this life. To recognize one’s mortality is to acknowledge the necessity of finding such purpose and meaning in this world and in this life, rather than in awaiting fulfillment in a hereafter.
Funerals and Memorial Services
A Humanistic funeral or memorial service (a ceremony at which the body is not present) reflects Humanistic Judaism’s realistic and respectful acceptance of death. Its purposes are to celebrate the life of the deceased and, through the presence and support of family and friends, to help the bereaved accept their loss and focus their memories of the dead in a meaningful way.
It is wise for as many decisions as possible to be made in advance of death. Preplanning can ensure that the wishes of the deceased are carried out smoothly and at less emotional and (possibly) financial cost to surviving loved ones. Issues to be considered include: removal and disposition of the body (burial, cremation, or donation for medical research, or donation of parts of the body followed by burial or cremation); whether or not there is to be viewing of the body; preparation of the body (embalming or temporary preservation, or neither); type and location of ceremony and choice of flowers, music, readings, officiant, and other participants; preparation of obituary or death notice; and other details.
Cremation – forbidden in the Orthodox, or rabbinic, tradition – has become an increasingly acceptable option in a secularized society and can be an appropriate choice for Humanistic Jews. The prohibition of cremation has its roots in some early cultures in which body and soul were believed to be inseparable; thus the soul could not survive destruction of the flesh. The rabbis justified the historic ban on cremation by their belief in a final Judgment Day on which the dead would be physically resurrected. If human beings truly accept their mortality and the finality of death, a taboo against cremation is irrelevant (as is a taboo of embalming). With the end of life, there is no need to preserve the body.
Humanistic Judaism encourages the performance of funeral or memorial rites in a simple, dignified, unostentatious manner. Services may be held before or after burial, cremation, or donation. The service may, but need not, be conducted by a rabbi or an ordained ceremonial leader (madrikh/a). A friend or family member may officiate, and a eulogy or eulogies may be delivered by one or more of those present. SHJ Rabbi Miriam Jerris may be able to assist you in locating a Humanistic Jewish officient. When you write to Rabbi Jerris, please include your name, address, and phone number. There are many resources in the SHJ Store Life Cycle section that can help you in creating a Humanistic Jewish funeral, memorial service, or unveiling.
The Kaddish and most other traditional Jewish liturgical materials are inappropriate for a Humanistic ceremony because they consist of praises or petitions to an omnipotent God whose wisdom and beneficence are unquestioned, even in a time of great personal loss. Humanistic Jews have a variety of alternatives to the traditional liturgy. Many Humanistic Jews choose to recite a Humanistic Kaddish.
Coping with the death of family and friends is a necessity of the human condition for which cultures create mourning practices. Humanistic Jews view the purpose of public mourning as twofold: the community, as well as the family, comes together to comfort the mourners and to pay tribute to the life and memory of the deceased. Humanistic Jews know that mourning is not intended for the dead. It is intended for the living. Whatever is done should enhance the ability of the living, both family and community, to reaffirm life.
Humanistic mourning practices include:
- Shiva: Mourners may choose to remain at home for a period of time after the funeral or memorial service. The purpose of this practice is to allow mourners to be comforted by visiting friends. Self-mortification is inappropriate. Memorial services may be held in the home.
- Yahrzeit: The recitation of the traditional Kaddish is inappropriate for Humanistic Jews, given its theistic content. Rather, nontheistic meditations appropriate to the occasion may be used. On the anniversary of the death, a yahrzeit flame may be kindled.
- Unveiling or Stone Dedication: If there is a burial or cremation plot, a memorial stone may be placed on the grave. A ceremony of dedication may be held. The unveiling of the stone may occur at any time after the death.
Just as Humanistic Judaism encourages and seeks to secure life with dignity, it encourages and seeks to secure death with dignity. The word euthanasia (from the Greek eu – good, thanatos – death) means “good death.” People should be permitted the right to die a good death – a death with a minimum of pain and suffering. Humanistic ethics oppose the cruel and inhuman notion that human beings must be kept breathing as long as possible, regardless of the circumstances and the person’s own fervent wish to be relieved of their pain and suffering. The extremely complex legal, ethical, and medical issues involved in the question of euthanasia – and the respective propriety of active and passive euthanasia – can be resolved if people are determined to do so. The SHJ has adopted a statement supporting physician-assisted death that “affirms that mentally competent adults with irreversible, terminal medical conditions accompanied by intense suffering should have the right to physician assistance in dying.” The Society, in an earlier statement supporting advance directives, “urges every person to compose a binding document (living will, advance directive) to ensure that all loved ones, close family members, and medical personnel will carry out his or her decision, and affirms that no one should have the right or authority to interfere with a personal choice regarding decisions about the ending of one’s own life.”
Our beliefs lead us to make a series of other decisions that arise when dealing with death, dying and bereavement. Although halakha (Jewish law) does not prohibit the practice of autopsy, an attitude prevails among many Jews today that it constitutes disfiguring and dishonoring the dead and should not, therefore, be permitted. From a Humanistic perspective, this position is insupportable. Since the purpose of autopsy is to provide information that may help to save lives and improve health, there are no Humanistic grounds for prohibiting it and many reasons to endorse the practice. By the same token, the donation of organs and other body parts for transplantation surgery is highly recommended. Any medical measure whereby the body of a deceased person may be used to save the life or improve the health of the living is to be encouraged.