“The Meaning of Life is That It Stops”* – L’vayat hameit/Assisting the Dead & the Bereaved
(*~ Franz Kafka)
What a journey we are on with the Eilu D’varim prayer. Last month, we were dancing with newlyweds. This month we are burying the dead. In fact, this month’s mitzvah (good deed) L’vayat hameit/helping the deceased have a proper burial and comforting the mourners is one of the highest we can perform, because the dead cannot return the favor.
It has always struck me how completely right-on Judaism is when it comes to the rituals surrounding death and mourning. From what we say when we hear the news to how intense and how long our grieving lasts, these rituals require the participants to face the reality of the situation, provide for the inevitable and necessary grief and bring us out of this difficult process healthy and whole.
I remember my first experience attending a Jewish funeral. It was many years ago, prior to my conversion to Judaism. I had attended funerals for Catholic family members and Christian friends, so the funeral part was not new to me. However, there was so much different that took place during the Jewish funeral that, I have to admit, I felt as though I had never been to a funeral before.
Even now so many years later, what stands out for me was actually participating in the burial. Since this funeral occurred not long after my grandmother had passed away, I was still feeling sad about walking away from her gravesite, leaving her casket unattended awaiting others to bury her. Now, here I was actually able to make sure this individual was secure in his final resting place, sheltered by the blanket of dirt I helped lay there. Was it difficult? Yes, I sobbed like a baby as I dropped my shovels full of dirt in and listened to them hit the casket wood. Yet the finality of it, the reality of it, was so healing.
The following books are excellent resources for discussing this important life cycle event with children and learning about the mitzvah (good deed) of L’vayat hameit/helping the deceased have a proper burial and comforting the mourners:
Lifetimes: The beautiful way to explain death to children by Bryan Mellonie. Illustrated by Robert Ingpen. © 1983. Bantam Books. Ages 3-7. In this simple, yet beautiful book with gorgeous illustrations, the idea that everything has a beginning and an ending and a lifetime in between is explained in a way that even a young child can comprehend.
Where is Grandpa Dennis? by Michelle Shapiro Abraham. Illustrated by Janice Fried. © 2009. URJ Press. Ages 6-10. In this highly sensitive and beautifully illustrated book, a young girl wants to know about her grandfather who died long before she was born. As her mother explains Jewish traditions such as placing a rock on the gravestone and lighting a yahrzeit (anniversary) candle for remembering a loved one who has died, she searches for the best way to explain where Grandpa Dennis is now. Together mother and daughter discover an answer that feels right for them.
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. Illustrated by Marc Brown. © 1996. Little Brown and Company. Ages 5-9. This excellent book discusses the difference between alive and dead, the different religious and cultural death customs and how a person might feel about the death of a loved one or pet. A great resource for parents.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. Illustrated by Erik Blegvad. © 1971. Simon & Schuster. Ages 5-9. When Barney, the cat, dies his owner must think of ten good things to say about him at the back yard funeral. He can only come up with nine until his dad helps him think of a very special tenth.
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals, and Other Fatal Circumstances by Lenore Look. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. © 2011. Schwartz & Wade Books. Ages 8-10. Alvin Ho, who is afraid of everything, agrees to go to his GungGung’s (grandfather’s) best friend’s funeral. Even with all his preparations, he is not sure he is brave enough to look death in the face and survive.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. © 1977. HarperCollinsPublishers. Ages 9-12. When the new kid – a girl – beats Jess in the first fifth-grade school yard race of the year, he is unspeakably angry. But then he finds himself defending her, Leslie, to the other kids and a forever friendship forms.
The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck. © 1948. Harper Trophy. Ages. 11-14. In this classic story by a Nobel Prize winning author, Kino, a farmer’s son, and Jiya, a fisherman’s son, live on a small island where everyone is afraid of something in the natural world. When tragedy strikes, they both learn an important lesson about how to appreciate everything life has to offer.
Two additional, yet out-of-print, picture books are worth looking for in your local library or online used book websites (i.e. www.abebooks.com/ , www.betterworldbooks.com/ ) A Candle for Grandpa: A Guide to the Jewish Funeral for Children and Parents by David Techner and Judith Hirt-Manheimer provides an excellent and detailed explanation of the Jewish mourning process for families with young children. Kaddish for Grandpa in Jesus’ Name Amen by James Howe can assist a family with interfaith connections in understanding and honoring both Christian and Jewish tradition after a parent’s (or other close relative’s) death.
Please feel free to use the discussion questions and activities provided in the Speak Volumes Guide for this month to help you discuss this topic with your children.
©2012 Kathleen M. Bloomfield and forwordsbooks.com all rights reserved.
Books used in this review came from publishers as review copies, my personal collection and my local public library.
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