How the Lakeside Jewish Community
Attends to End-of-Life Challenges
By Elizabeth Katz and Betty Shiffman
Like many religious communities all over the world, the lakeside Jewish community is largely unaffiliated. The Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation, aka LCJC or “the synagogue,” has adopted the view that it is not only a congregation in the religious sense, but also a generator of occasions to congregate for secular purposes - to share food, music, and film, for example, and not least, to face together the challenges that arise at the end of life.
Dying is dying, death is death and mourning is mourning: what’s different about Jewish dying, death and mourning? Some examples:
Jewish tradition encourages us to accept death and to meet it thoughtfully. Jews have a meaningful custom called Ethical Wills, a statement of the accumulated wisdom and values which we have attained through our life’s experience.
Jews bless the memory of our departed loved ones by affirming life. That is the message of one of Judaism’s best known prayers, the Kaddish.
In Jewish tradition, although the human form no longer embodies the spirit, we continue to show respect for that form. At the same time, we believe that the soul, newly freed from the body, is still near, and we respect its presence. These precepts underlie the practices of washing the body, ritually purifying it and keeping watch over it.
Recognizing that in death, we are all equal, Judaism encourages the use of the same simple shroud for everyone, and a plain wooden coffin as well.
A Jewish burial is a “green” burial, without embalming, elaborate caskets and vaults.
Traditionally, Jews do not have music at a funeral, nor is it proper to bring flowers. A gift to charity named by the deceased and in his/her honor is recommended instead of flowers.
In biblical times, Jewish mourners literally tore their garments in grief. In modern times, a black ribbon is torn and then affixed to the mourner’s garments - on the left, over the heart - just before the funeral service begins.
In Jewish tradition, the mourners themselves begin to fill the grave, each placing a shovel full of earth on the casket or urn.
Upon return from the cemetery, mourners share a meal, called a “meal of consolation.” Traditionally, this meal does not include meat. It uses foods which are the basic staples of life, and/or which symbolize life. Hard boiled eggs and bagels are two examples. This meal is not an occasion for lavish feasting and drinking. In fact, serving liquor is discouraged.
The first seven days following the funeral are known as Shiva, which means seven in Hebrew. Traditionally mourners during this time lead a simplified life and shiva services are held both in the morning and the late afternoon, when family and friends gather. Less intensive Jewish mourning observances continue for about a year, ending with a ceremony at the grave, when the grave marker is unveiled.
When visiting a grave, mourners leave a stone. The stone is like a calling card which says that someone who loved you came to visit.
Three LCJC committees offer nonjudgmental and confidential help at the end of life. The Chesed Committee attends to all who are ill, including the terminally ill. The Shiva Committee steps in when death has occurred, and mourning begins. Both groups see themselves as vehicles for disseminating information and for facilitating action. The Cemetery Committee operates the Jewish cemetery, providing for Jews and non-Jewish spouses a rare opportunity for burial lakeside.
The committees define the lakeside Jewish community to include Jews by birth, Jews by choice, and Jews at heart (non-Jewish partners). We embrace atheistic, agnostic, and nonobservant Jews, as well as Jews on the whole spectrum of Jewish observance. We welcome as well Jews who have incorporated other religious traditions into their beliefs and practices.
The Jewish community works with Funeraria San Francisco in Chapala, which provides traditional plain pine coffins, and can dress the body in the shrouds which one of our volunteers sews by hand. If desired, burial can be in the Jewish cemetery. At the graveside, an experienced lay leader performs the customary Jewish service.
We can also shape the service to meet individual needs. At one funeral for a member of the Jewish community, three “dancing” Mexican horses followed the hearse to the grave. One horse was rider-less, with the sombrero of the deceased hung on the empty saddle. Because there were a significant number of Spanish speakers present, the service was conducted in Hebrew, English and Spanish.
On another occasion, the Canadian Legion provided an honor guard, a Canadian flag to cover the coffin, a rendition of “The Last Post,” and recitation of the poem “In Flanders Fields.” A friend of the deceased played a bagpipe lament for a fallen warrior. The Legion distributed their customary red paper poppies to be pinned over the heart and later removed and dropped into the open grave.
On February 20 and 27, there will be a workshop for the Jewish community entitled “All Right, All Ready: Let’s Get It Done!” This two part workshop is designed to motivate and to help members of the community prepare for dying and death in Mexico. A more complete announcement will be available soon, but contact E Katz, 766 3728, now if you are interested in attending.
If we can help you, or you wish to help us, please contact J Braverman, 332-822-1507, S. Greenberg, 332-815-4973; E Katz, 376-766-3728; B Shiffman 331-861-4123; or M Sullivan, 376-766-1432.