Dear Debra: Out Of Line
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I’ve attended several funerals this year and remain stymied by the “receiving lines.” I am new to the community and have never seen this custom of people lining up to greet and ostensibly comfort the mourners. It doesn’t seem fair to expect them to greet well-wishers moments before their loved one’s funeral. I don’t want to appear rude by not joining the line to offer my respects, but isn’t this what shivah is for? Sometimes I go through the line; sometimes I don’t. Neither choice feels particularly comfortable. What is proper?
— Out of Line
I, too, found this custom curious when I moved here. It seems an onerous burden to place upon family members reeling with the death of a loved one. I also recognize the dilemma from the perspective of those attending the funeral — feeling rude if you don’t get in line and burdening the grieving if you do.
I asked Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm for guidance. His perspective balances Halachah (Jewish law) and the concept of minhag hamakom (prevailing community custom). Quoting a teaching from Pirkei Avot (Lessons of the Fathers) — Do not wish condolences while their dead lay before them — Rubenstein elaborated, “Tradition is worried about the psyche of the mourner, and the rabbis agreed.”
Rubenstein shared the mourners’ side as well. “When I speak with families who are planning a funeral for their loved one,” he said, “some worry about offending those who are coming to the funeral. They feel bad for ‘keeping people away’ if they opt out of the greeting line.
“They don’t need to. I tell the families they are under no obligation to make themselves available before the funeral. Shivah is tailor-made as an opportunity for people to comfort mourners in a personal, calm and unhurried manner.”
Sometimes I get in line, and sometimes I don’t. Either way, I prefer to make a shivah call which, as Rubenstein shared, is our tradition’s way of ensuring that a mourner is comforted.
My husband’s uncle died recently. His widow was not invited to spend Thanksgiving with her son (the couple’s only child) and his wife. They celebrated the holiday with the wife’s family. When we found out she was going to be alone, we immediately extended an invitation to this aunt, which was gratefully accepted. This woman is not socially a “problem” in any way. Should I speak to the son about his lack of concern for his mother at such a time? She shouldn’t be ignored at future holidays.
— Concerned Niece-in-Law
On the surface, it does appear that the son dropped the ball. But without more information, neither of us knows. In all fairness, the young couple might have invited his mom to celebrate with the wife’s family. Perhaps she declined, wanting to avoid a large crowd at a time when she is fresh with grief.
Approaching the son with accusations of ignoring his mother is a sure recipe for nothing constructive. Instead, casually engage the son in what he and his family are doing before the next holiday. That way you’ll find out if your husband’s aunt is being included. Tread lightly. For all your good intentions, your concern might put you onto that proverbial road that does not lead to Heaven.
If this column arrives in time, why not fry up some latkes and invite the aunt, her son and his family for a Chanukah party, menorahs and all? Use this as an opportunity to strengthen the bonds between your families instead of worrying, possibly unnecessarily, that they might not exist.
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