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We frequently receive questions that may require a slightly longer response than what we have room for on our main website. From details about Jewish funeral practices to slightly more unusual questions that may have been nagging at you, we’ll try to provide some answers here.
Any information about ritual practice is intended as a general overview for the broader Jewish community and there are many differences of opinion within this community. Concerns about specific ritual practices should be directed to your rabbi. Opinions expressed in blog posts and in external links may not represent the opinions of the staff or ownership of Sol Levinson & Bros., Inc.
In Jewish tradition, immediate mourners (spouse, children, siblings) typically do not serve as pallbearers, but in-laws, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, cousins, close family friends, et cetera, may serve. Your level of observance will determine whether men and women, or just men, can serve as pallbearers. Please ask your rabbi if you have questions.
For services in our chapel, we will call pallbearers by name and give them instructions at the end of the service (at graveside services they are not called by name, they meet at the hearse to receive instructions).
Active pallbearers (5-10 people) physically lift and carry the casket at the funeral home and again at the cemetery, and must be able to lift. For services in our chapel you may also have honorary pallbearers. If you have more than 10 people to be pallbearers, or people unable to physically lift, you may make them honorary pallbearers and they will stand in the aisle of the chapel at the end of the service in the funeral home. Fraternal groups or charitable guilds should be acknowledged as honorary pallbearers.
- What is the Jewish religious/historical background of cemeteries and the purpose of having an established burial place marked with a person’s name?
- If we don’t believe the person is “there,” what significance does a person’s burial place hold?
- Especially in this age of people moving away from their hometown, why are cemeteries still important?
- What are the traditional rituals or readings to recite at a cemetery, and why?
- What are some creative new options for making a visit to the cemetery more meaningful, both for adults and children?
As our society evolves, how can we find meaning and purpose in our visit to the grave of a loved one? It can be difficult in our busy lives to find time to visit the cemetery, especially when many feel that the person is not really there in any tangible way. We spoke with several area rabbis to get their feedback about the traditional roots of the concept of a cemetery, as well as approaches you can take to visiting, and contemporary rituals you can perform to create a visit that is personally meaningful for you and your family.
The first thing to be said is that approaches, of course, vary based on a person’s level of observance and we always encourage you to ask your rabbi about options for visiting the cemetery. However, when it comes down to it, the visit is about you and your connection to the person who is buried there. This guide seeks to help strengthen that connection through visiting the cemetery. To that end, we are including responses from Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Jessy Dressin who is Senior Director of Jewish Learning and Life at the JCC, Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation, and Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah.
What is the Jewish religious/historical background of cemeteries and the purpose of having an established burial place marked with a person’s name?
It is important to note that the tradition of having an established burial place goes back to the very first Jew, Abraham, who – as Rabbi Shapiro notes – went through a lot of hoops to pick the right location for a family place of burial. Rabbi Schwartz also points out that in Genesis 35:19-20, Jacob sets a stone to mark the place where Rachel is buried, and there is also an emphasis that “the dust returns to the earth as it was…” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). In the Talmud they even refer to a grave stone as a “nefesh” or soul.
The Jewish burial process is driven by the concept of “kavod hamet” or respect for the dead. This is interpreted as treating a deceased person as if they were still alive, including not delaying burial unnecessarily. To Rabbi Busch, the establishment of a cemetery fulfills kavod hamet in several ways – by providing for a respectful burial ground, by providing for the community, and by ensuring that everyone has an appropriate burial place regardless of their wealth. It also connects a family to their history in a particular community.
If we don’t believe the person is “there,” what significance does a person’s burial place hold?
Traditional Judaism believes that a spiritual remnant of the deceased- a connection to their soul remains forever at the grave. But depending upon one’s beliefs, many feel the person is no longer there at the cemetery in any tangible way. So why do we still go to the cemetery, if we don’t think it is any different than another space in regard to that individual? To begin with, a cemetery is still considered a holy place, due to the aforementioned concept of kavod hamet. It is the final resting place of a person’s body that was created in the image of G-d and that carried their soul through its earthly journey. Several of the rabbis mentioned that the sacredness or holiness of the space can enhance a visitor’s connection to the person. Rabbi Dressin reflects that a cemetery visit allows you to “think of them with special intentionality” given that the act of going to the cemetery can create a container of sorts of a specific moment in time. Therefore, by going to a designated place, that may be different than how you think about that person as you go along your daily routine.
There are also some important traditional reasons to visit a cemetery. It is customary to visit at holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and yahrzeits. Visiting a cemetery at certain milestones throughout the year is, as Rabbi Shapiro mentions, a way of continuing the relationship with that person and extending the concept of kavod hamet. You can even go and talk to the person and share news of family life such as weddings and births. It is also customary to visit at a time of need, whether you believe in the traditional view that prayer at a cemetery will allow your loved one to intercede with G-d on your behalf or you just need a quiet, meditative place to have that person in your mind when you are going through a difficult time. Some people go to the cemetery to have a focused place to talk about their issues out loud and feel they are sharing them with a loved one who is no longer physically present in their lives.
Especially in this age of people moving away from their hometown, why are cemeteries still important?
As stated at the beginning, cemeteries create a community space for burial and a sense of community history. Rabbi Schwartz points out that establishing a cemetery is typically one of the first things a community does to honor the dead and show “that a community has roots.” He also mentions that “it is comforting to have a known location where a body lies interred.” Rabbi Busch echoes this by saying that “even though they may end up moving…there is still some place to visit or to know that someone is taken care of, physically and metaphorically.”
For those who are unsure of where to be buried because their family lives in several different places, it is important to keep in mind whether you want to be buried in the community where you spent your life or, possibly, as Rabbi Shapiro mentioned, “why not be buried somewhere else, like near your children or other relatives, if nobody is going to come back to where you live. Ask yourself what would give your family the greatest peace of mind.” For some there is also some reassurance in knowing that, no matter where your family may move or eventually end up, a person has been given a final resting place.
What are the traditional rituals or readings to recite at a cemetery, and why?
Psalms are traditionally read at the cemetery and were meant to be a form of meditation. Often the 23rd Psalm is read. Some people also choose to recite El Maleih (the Memorial Prayer) and the Mourner’s Kaddish. These readings emphasize the traditional nature of a cemetery, which is – in Rabbi Shapiro’s words – a “place of contemplation, thought, and reflection.”
If you are not familiar with Mourner’s Kaddish and would like to practice it before going to the cemetery, the Hebrew and transliteration, as well as an audio recording, can be found on our website. All of the other readings can be found on this downloadable .pdf or by picking up one of our blue “Prayers of Comfort” books.
What are some creative new options for making a visit to the cemetery more meaningful, both for adults and children?
Rabbi Dressin emphasizes that “it is important to get over the barriers to going to the cemetery. There isn’t a rule about how you should feel when you visit a cemetery, and there are few restrictions about what you can or cannot do.” She encourages people to “think intentionally about the visit and create the necessary space to feel their presence or your sense of loss.”
As you plan your visit to the cemetery, Rabbi Dressin recommends asking yourself the following questions:
- What is the mood I want at my visit?
- What did that person like to do in life? Did they always read the paper? Bring a newspaper and read it to them (Rabbi Busch had a former congregant who would read the entire paper to his father every Sunday).
- What do YOU do for comfort? Do you like to knit? Draw? Color? Journal? Bring those items and sit at the grave and do those things.
Rabbi Dressin also recommends the following activities: Share stories with other family who goes with you, especially with those who didn’t know the person as well. Think of things you liked to do with the person and reminisce about those things while there – if you did crossword puzzles together, bring a crossword puzzle. Bring a special stone with you, either a certain color or type of stone, a stone from your yard or vacation or that person’s favorite place. You can also have young children paint small river rocks and then spray with shellac to be left at the grave; or, if you are having a child make a craft for Mother’s or Father’s Day, have the child make an extra and take the child to leave it at the grave. If appropriate, bring another object – sculpt their favorite animal from playdoh, bring a pack of cards, a small figurine of a favorite object or animal. Pick a poem or song lyrics that remind you of the person and read it at the grave. If the visit to a cemetery is uncomfortable or too overwhelming to contemplate, consider keeping it short and planning a small family gathering for a bite to eat afterward, where you can sit in a more relaxed environment and talk about the person.
Rabbi Busch recommends singing a song the deceased liked, at the grave, which is an especially good way for a child to feel included. Or a child could sing their own favorite song. Rabbi Busch also suggests reading a poem or simply talking to your loved one. For Rabbi Schwartz, a nice way to bring more meaning to the visit would be to write a message to your loved one in advance and leave it at the grave, perhaps under a special rock. He also likes the idea of marking the occasion by having someone say a few words about the person.
Rabbi Shapiro encourages people to visit at difficult times and perhaps take some poems or meaningful meditations. He has seen people take solace in readings he refers to as “contemporary Psalms” such as the poem, “We Remember Them” and “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.” While there is also a Jewish tradition not to turn the burial place into a type of idol to the person’s memory, Rabbi Shapiro also looks forward to how technology may one day be incorporated into monuments in order to provide information about a person’s life history or a slideshow for future generations to learn more about the person and feel connected.
How can your family create meaningful new rituals to make your visit to the cemetery more impactful? What does visiting the cemetery mean to you and your family? How does visiting the cemetery connect us to our family history and Jewish history? All of these are important questions to ask before your next visit. We hope this guide has offered a starting point for your contemplation.
Have you ever wondered why it is Jewish tradition to fill in the graves of our loved ones? To some it may seem like a painful process and, truthfully, it is. But our Jewish faith teaches us to care for one another, and that doesn’t stop after death. In fact, the guiding Jewish principal after someone dies is “Kavod HaMet” or honoring the dead. According to chabad.org, “Burial is the last physical act of kindness that we do for our departed loved ones. We have cared for them in their lifetimes, and now we care for them in their passing by ensuring they have a proper Jewish burial.” Many rabbis even say that it is the highest mitzvah that you can do, as it is truly selfless, since you know that the deceased will never be able to repay you for this act of kindness.
The more traditional Jewish burials involve filling the grave entirely with large shovels, while Reform or Conservative burials may involve ceremonial earth with small hand shovels. Some families have a tradition somewhere in between that requires ensuring the top of the casket is covered before departing the cemetery. You may have noticed some people using the back of the shovel for at least one of the scoops. Using the back of the shovel shows our reluctance in burying our loved one, that we are differentiating the act from a standard use of a shovel, and that it is not an easy task. Finally, as we place the earth into the grave, we might hear the rabbi recite the words Al mekomo yavo veshalom (for a man) or Al mekomah tavo veshalom (for a woman). This translates to may ________ go to his/her place in peace.
It is so important to care for each other in death as we care for each other in life. The tradition of burying our own is one of healing, and the beginning of a long process of mourning our loved ones. It symbolizes closure, allowing us to move forward into the shiva period and navigate a new world without the deceased. Knowing that we did everything we could to help our loved one transition on to what is next hopefully brings at least a small feeling of comfort.
Advance Planning is the number one thing you can do to make the funeral process easier for your family.
Why Advance Planning?
Advance planning allows your family to spend the time after someone’s death focusing on grief and healing, instead of funeral particulars.
What is Advance Planning?
Advance Planning is deciding ahead of time what your wishes are for your funeral or that of a loved one. We are here to make this conversation as easy as possible. There is no obligation to pay anything, and no fee for the appointment.
How does it work?
Simply schedule a time to meet with or speak by phone with one of the funeral directors who specializes in advance planning. When you meet with us face-to-face, we will provide you with a detailed and personalized Pre-Planning Guide that includes all the information regarding your funeral selections, as well as helpful resources to help you get organized and to make the time surrounding the funeral much easier for your family. If you make arrangements with us by phone, we can email you a copy of your Pre-Planning Guide.
Pre-paying comes with the obvious benefit of your family not having to come up with funds or worry about finances while grieving, and we would be happy to discuss our various payment options to pre-pay some or all of the funeral. However, we feel it is most important that you start the process and put your wishes on paper.
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, nearly 72% of families are providing care for adults who are 50 or older. That number will continue to grow as our baby boomer generation ages. Being a caregiver can be a daunting undertaking, but here is an article from Hadassah about the importance of caregivers taking care of themselves. There has even been publicity recently about Millenials becoming caregivers.
Here are some links to some resources that we hope you will find helpful:
Did you know that there are several benefits that veterans of the United States military are entitled to for their burials? There are both ceremonial and financial benefits available to any veterans that have served our country and were honorably discharged.
You may have attended a funeral that had a flag draped over the casket, heard the moving sounds of a bugler playing Taps at the cemetery, and then witnessed the flag being folded and presented to a mourner on behalf of our grateful country. It can be a powerful and meaningful moment in what is already a very emotional experience.
If you wish have military honors at your own or a loved one’s funeral, all you need to provide to your funeral director is what is known as form DD-214. This form states that the veteran has been honorably discharged from his or her service and is eligible for an honor guard to be present at the funeral. There is no charge for this service and it is something that Levinson’s will coordinate on your behalf with the United States military. If you have already pre-planned your funeral with Levinson’s, we can keep this document on file to present at the time of burial. If you do not have access to the DD-214, you can obtain one by going to this web site or by contacting the National Personnel Records Center at 314-801-0800.
There are also several financial benefits that are provided to veterans for their burials. For example, every veteran who has been honorably discharged (and their spouse) is entitled to a grave at a state veterans cemetery at no charge. The veteran is also entitled to a free lining in the grave, a grave marker, and the opening and closing of the grave at no charge (spouses of veterans are entitled to extreme discounts for these items). Burial at a veterans cemetery does sometimes entail a little bit of a wait for interment and our funeral directors can provide you some information on that. Families of veterans can be reimbursed (up to a certain amount) for the cost of a grave at another cemetery, as well as for some funeral expenses. These amounts vary and to receive them the family must apply directly to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after the veteran’s death by going to their website or calling 1-800-827-1000.
Membership in Jewish War Veterans of America (JWV) also provides benefits. Members of JWV will provide a ceremony (upon request) that involves standing at attention in front of a casket in our chapel, and they will also serve as honorary pallbearers. According to jvw.org “The Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America is an American Jewish veterans’ organization created in 1896 by Civil War veterans to prove that Jews have proudly served this country since the Revolutionary Era.” The JWV works to help preserve veterans’ healthcare, as well as benefits for their caregivers, and can even help to provide service dogs to veterans in need. For more information about how to join or donate to the JWV please visit their website.
For more information about veterans’ benefits related to the funeral, please give us a call or schedule a time to sit down and speak with one of our funeral directors.
Social Media has become as much a part of our everyday lives as eating and breathing. In today’s world, it is hard to find someone who hasn’t left at least one digital footprint behind for others to find online. Whether you use social media to catch up with friends, show off pictures of grandchildren, or keep informed of community events, it is an open door for other people to see what you are doing with your life. With that being said, have you ever thought of what will happen to your social media accounts in the wake of your death?
Luckily for those of us not so technically inclined, many social media applications have already thought of this task for us. Setting up a “legacy,” or a person you select to maintain your social media accounts, is a way that your pages can be memorialized at the time of your death, and let friends and family pay tribute to your everlasting memory. Your “legacy” can monitor the account and manage the features in your absence, making sure that friends and loved ones won’t receive insensitive messages, such as automatic birthday reminders after your death. People often forget that social media applications don’t know when a person has died, and these automated reminders and messages will continue to be sent unless the proper protocol is followed.
Although this may be an unpleasant thing to think about, the reality is that your social media accounts are an extension of you, and should be managed by someone you trust (or closed out upon your passing). If for nothing more than letting long lost contacts know what has happened to you, the social media pages maintained by your “legacy” can be an important bereavement tool for loved ones who may find comfort in visiting your pages, posting tributes and reliving happy memories.
For more information on how to assign a “legacy” to maintain your Facebook account, click here. There are also many articles online where you can read more about the benefits of having a social media “legacy,” and how to set up a “legacy” for social media accounts other than Facebook.
Most people know that at Sol Levinson & Bros. we pride ourselves on our high level of service while tending to people in our care. People sometimes wonder what makes Levinson’s so different than other funeral homes, and even other businesses in general.
Sol Levinson & Bros. has been family owned and operated for more than 125 years, making us one of the oldest family-owned businesses in Baltimore. It is an exceptional and unusual legacy. Thus far, we have had five generations of the Levinson family privileged to serve Baltimore and the surrounding communities. Since our beginning in the 1880s when Max Levinson began his funeral transportation service (which later became our very first funeral home) we have built our business on strong family values which we hope are reflected in how well we are able to assist your family. Our long-standing and close relationships with area rabbis, synagogues, cemeteries and community organizations allow us to excel at providing service to the families we serve. We believe that having a robust family commitment is what builds a strong community, and Levinson’s is honored to be an integral part of the city we call home.
Mission Statement: Providing exceptional funeral care to our community from generation to generation through compassion, education, and personalization.
Being a family-owned business allows us a great deal of flexibility when it comes to helping others. We are able to handle each family’s needs with a personal touch, accommodating everything from the most traditional funeral to the most personalized alternative services a family would like. As funeral directors, our role is to provide information, options, and experience in order to help families as much as possible. Our flexibility as a business also allows us to provide innovative programming and outreach, such as bereavement support groups, educational series’ on topics such as healthy living or living wills, bereavement programs in partnership with local hospice organizations, special programs on topics such as the Opioid Epidemic, and our Levinson’s Volunteer Initiative where we provide social action projects at local festivals and fairs.
The Levinson’s difference extends to the staff, as well. No matter what time of the day or night, when you call Levinson’s you will always be greeted by a warm, caring, and knowledgeable member of our staff, whereas most other funeral homes and businesses turn their phones over to an answering service after hours. At Levinson’s we have many employees that have been here for ten years or longer, and we try our hardest to ensure that there is continuity of service and relationships, even when that spans decades. If you have dealt with a specific funeral director in the past, we try to make sure you deal with that person again whenever possible. Finally, we have extensive training for our staff, to ensure they know how to handle all of the logistics that go into planning a funeral, and we hire people we know to be warm and compassionate in addition to being detail-oriented.
We know a lot of the families that we work with, and they have been allowing us to serve them for years; but even for the families who are not familiar with us, we pride ourselves on making everyone feel like a part of our family, and not just a client. Sol Levinson & Bros. is honored to have spent the past 125 years providing families with the personalized care that they need and deserve, and we look forward to doing so for many years to come. We want every family we serve to feel as comfortable as they can during one of the most difficult parts of life. We understand that planning the funeral of a loved one is not an easy thing to do, but we want to make it as easy on families as possible. Thank you for entrusting us with this vital service to the community.
When we invited Rabbi Steven Schwartz, of Beth El Congregation, to present on the topic of Jewish Views on the Afterlife at the October 2017 “We Remember Them: Finding Hope and Meaning After Loss” program, we had no idea how many people would be interested in the topic. As it turned out, he had a large group of people gathered to learn more.
We followed up with Rabbi Schwartz to get a summary and he said “Many Jews don’t realize how much Judaism has to say about life after death. The tradition understands that God plants a soul inside of us when we come into the world, and when we die God takes our soul back. In that sense, the souls we carry during our earthly journeys are eternal, and will continue to exist even after our physical bodies are gone.” Rabbi Schwartz emphasized to us that “a core idea of Judaism is that we don’t understand death as being the end, but transitional, from one state of being to another state of being.”
After a little more research we came to the conclusion that, as with many aspects of Judaism, belief in what an afterlife looks like varies across the board. Below are a few websites that discuss the Jewish view on the afterlife in depth and from different perspectives. We at Levinson’s do not promote any particular belief, but we understand this is an important topic and people are searching for more information. We encourage you to talk to your Rabbi, do a little more reading and come to your own conclusions on this deep and meaningful subject.
What does it mean to “age in place”? According to the U.S. Center of Disease Control and Prevention the definition is, “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.” The average life expectancy in this country continues to rise, and with this blessing comes challenges and responsibilities to help maintain the safety and quality of life for a growing senior population. With families more spread out than ever, many adult children worry about making decisions for – and ensuring the well-being of – their aging parents from a distance.
Most people’s first desire is to remain in their own home as they age, and there are important ways that homes can and should be updated to ensure one’s physical safety. Some of these modifications involve removing tripping hazards, placing assistive devices in bathrooms, re-arranging furniture, adding ramps, ensuring kitchen safety, and more. There are also concerns about medication management and transportation that may need to be resolved. There are many resources available in Baltimore to help people continue their independent lifestyle and remain in their communities and their own homes.
Jewish Community Services offers an Elder Care Management program. From their website, “JCS Elder Care Management supports individuals in their desire to continue living in their own homes or in other settings with maximum independence and dignity while providing their family and caregivers with peace of mind.” Please see their website for the many ways they can assist, including consultations, assessments, and care management services.
Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. or, CHAI presents a broad range of community resources for seniors. They offer a supportive community network, housing services and loans, home repair, and other community outreach and volunteer programs. You can find all of these resources, as well as ways to volunteer or donate, by visiting their website.
Another vital part of being able to remain independent includes taking care of one’s self not only physically but mentally as well. The Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore offers a multitude of classes and events for seniors that allow them to socialize and remain connected to their community while staying physically active, strengthening both body and mind. There are classes available for visual arts, performing arts, book clubs, as well as their Lifelong Learning programs which offer enrichment classes on art and literature. Many of the programs and classes they offer are free or low cost. To find out more and see a comprehensive list of services they offer, you can visit their website.
If you are interested in learning about how to create more opportunities for the community to better “age in place” you can also visit the National Aging in Place Council.
Thinking about our future or our parents’ futures isn’t always easy, but putting plans and practices in place now can help us ease into the next phase of life. Albert Einstein said “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” With the proper care and planning you can continue that balance well into the future, independently, safely and comfortably.