Community Blog Can We Talk? Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife
What are the rhythms and practices of mourning a loved one in Muslim or Jewish tradition? How have you experienced them personally, and how have you found them meaningful? Challenging? What is the relationship between the individual and the community in a time of mourning? What does your tradition teach about the existence of an afterlife?
It’s hard to think of any category of Jewish ritual where there is more intersection of the personal and the communal than in the area of death and mourning.
When my father-in-law died, the traditional intense seven-day period of mourning, shiva, was cut short—reduced to just a couple of hours b/c of the intrusion, right after the burial, of the holiday of Sukkot. Nothing makes you yearn for the inherited rhythms of your own faith tradition more than having them shaken up. My husband, Ben, instead was expected to observe the holiday—with its painful commandment to be “only joyful”—and then return to regular life and work. In this circumstance, communal norms, including the observance of the holiday, trumped personal ones. This quirk is an odd, and often difficult, aspect of Jewish tradition—in which our mourning customs are otherwise often praised as being psychologically wise.
Fortunately, upon our return home after a very muted holiday observance at my in-laws’ house, Ben had two days of what I called “faux shiva”. Friends brought us food, and he was able to receive visitors, to talk about his father and be listened to, and to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish–a prayer that praises God and actually doesn’t mention death at all—in the presence of at least 10 adults in our home. He continued to do so daily, at synagogue, for the remainder of the traditional year of mourning for a parent—or, more precisely, for 11 out of those 12 months, as is conventional. In keeping with the spirit if not the letter of traditional Jewish law, during that year he did listen to music that was calming and relaxing, but not for entertainment.
When my brother died a few years later, I sat shiva for the full week–first with my mother in her hometown, and then back with my own community. I had been to perhaps hundreds of shiva gatherings, but this was the first time that I was on the receiving end of this endless stream of comfort and presence. After that, I too joined with community to recite kaddish, but only for 30 days as is customary for a sibling. I was never the only mourner there—and that too, was a source of comfort.
We all, inevitably, find ourselves as mourners. I’m interested to know what your experience has been of Muslim traditions around death and mourning.
Many condolences for your family’s losses, may their memories be blessed, and may your heart be comforted.
I recently attended a shiva gathering and was deeply moved by the spirit of the service. How beautiful and healing it must be to honor deceased relatives so dutifully. I found the rituals and customs to be very therapeutic.
I have lost both of my siblings, my brother in a traffic accident in college and my sister nine years later to terminal cancer.
I remember so clearly the phone call I received from my father. “Are you sitting down?” he’d asked. I was in Egypt; my tiny infant daughter, just weeks old, was soundly sleeping next to me. “Matt was killed.”
In Arabic, “mat” literally means, “he died,” and all these years later I remember trying to explain to my mother-in-law what had just happened while I was still in a state of utter shock, “Matt mat. Matt mat,” I kept mumbling. She kept asking me in Arabic, “Who, died? Who died?” My brother had a great sense of humor, and I cannot help but think that he would have found that scene tragically comic.
Matt was given a fairly typical American funerary service in accord with my parents’ Christian background. It was also tragically comic that my Egyptian in-laws (possible descendants of the ancient doyens of mummy-making), found the embalming, the dapper suit, and open-casket visitation rituals a week after the actual death to be in stark contrast with the very simple burial shrouds and very quick interment process that is typical for Muslims.
When my sister passed, I also had a difference in custom to navigate. A Unitarian by disposition, she had requested to be cremated and to have her ashes spread where the wild horses run. As a family we honored her request, but for Muslims, cremation is generally not permissible. “We’re trying to escape the [hell]fire,” one Muslim in-law inquired, “Why would we incinerate ourselves?”
The practice of visiting graves of deceased friends and relatives to honor them is encouraged for Muslims, but that fact that my sister does not have a gravesite means that I honor and remember her in other ways.
I’m curious about different Jewish perspectives on the state of the soul or human spirit once the physical body has died. What thoughts do you personally have on the matter, and has that changed over the course of your life?
I must begin by naming two striking commonalities. First is the sad fact that we have both lost our siblings at much-too-early ages. Second, and on a more positive note, are the very many commonalities between Muslim and Jewish practices. (Sometimes I marvel at the existence of the expression “Judeo-Christian” but not “Judeo-Muslim”!)
Here, the traditional simple burial shrouds and quick interment, opposition to cremation, and importance of gravesites are just a few specifics worth noting. Do you think that the generous and heartfelt response of many Muslims to the recent Jewish cemetery desecrations was in part informed by their own deep sense of the holiness and importance of such sites? I also wonder whether there is a parallel or similar timeline of mourning in Islam to the Jewish one of the intensity of shiva (seven days), sheloshim (thirty days), and—for a parent—the year of mourning? And how, if at all, is the anniversary of a death marked by Muslims—or are there other times and ways of noting those losses as the years go by?
You have no idea how on target you were by asking about “different Jewish perspectives” on whether the soul has an afterlife! What I can say in this limited space is that while Jewish texts and thinkers have offered many depictions of what happens to the soul after death, many modern Jews have come to believe that in contrast to Christianity, Judaism focuses on this world rather than the next world (true) and that “Judaism does not believe in an afterlife” (not true).
I think it’s most accurate to say that there is a diversity of depictions of and beliefs about what might happen to our souls after we die—and that that diversity, as your question implies, can even be reflected over a lifetime within the beliefs of one person. My own experience is of a sense of mystery—while feeling certain that whoever we each have been can’t simply cease to exist, and knowing in my heart that the essence of loved ones who have died still remains, somehow.
So, to my two questions above, I add a third, about your own relationship to the very question you asked me about the soul.
Yes, it is fair to say that the Judeo-Muslim heritage is rich and longstanding!
You asked about some of our specific mourning practices. Upon first hearing about a death, it is customary to say, “Truly we are God’s, and unto Him we return,” which comes from a verse in the Qur’an (Q. 2:156). (Any time a Muslim mentions the name of a diseased person, it is also customary to say a few words asking for God’s mercy.) One of the mourners’ rituals in Islam is to read a particular chapter of the Qur’an, the 36th chapter entitled YaSin, which is commonly referred to as “the heart of the Qur’an”. Some recite this chapter as a daily devotion, but it is also typically recited for those who are close to death, those who have just passed, and at the graves. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, also taught Muslims visiting graves to say, “Peace be upon you, oh people of the graves. You are the predecessors, and we are the followers.”
I’m proud that individuals in Muslim communities stepped up to help rebuild the damaged Jewish cemeteries. In general, Muslims hold that the body has a certain sanctity and is due respect, even in death. Furthermore, one of the central Islamic values is a respect for ownership of property. In Islamic teachings in general, there is a tremendous value placed on helping one’s neighbor in times of distress. I think many Muslims also resonate with the plights of other religious minorities in the American landscape.
Lastly, I do strongly believe in the core Islamic teaching that the distinct spirit of a person has a life beyond the life of this world. I firmly believe that all human spirits will be recompensed according to their merits. For me, and for many Muslims, the prospect of divine reward is a key motivating factor in walking through this world. We never know when our time in the world may end, so each day is an opportunity to do good and purify the heart.
May you always be enriched in your pursuits, may you and your family be protected from calamity, and may your hearts be contented.
Rabbi Sue Fendrick is an editor, writer, teacher, and spiritual director. A graduate of Brown University, she was ordained in 1995 from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. Her writing appears in numerous books and publications.
Celine Ibrahim M.Div. is the Islamic studies Scholar-in-Residence jointly appointed to the faculties of Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School. She also serves as the Muslim Chaplain at Tufts University and teaches on the faculty of the newly established Boston Islamic Seminary.
“Can We Talk?” is a project of the Miller Center for lnterreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College in Newton, MA, and the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, MD. This series provides a context for public discussion among Jewish and Muslim intellectuals and community leaders on a broad range of topics-religious, cultural, civic, and political-modeling constructive personal engagement across our communities. Each month, we feature a new conversation between one Jewish and one Muslim writer on a designated topic.