Origin of funeral visitation unknown; practice controversial

Origin of funeral visitation unknown; practice controversial

Read an obituary announcing a Jewish funeral in Pittsburgh, and you will see something that is absent in most other communities: the publication of a time for “visitation,” usually an hour before the start of the service. During the visitation hour, family members of the deceased are cloistered in a separate room outside the funeral chapel, where they stand in a receiving line, accepting condolences from guests. While the practice of a formal visitation prior to a Jewish funeral is not unique to Pittsburgh, it is also not common in other communities. And many rabbis say it is not Jewish.

“It is contrary to and effectively undermines Jewish mourning practice,” according to Rabbi Danny Schiff, Federation scholar of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “Jewish practice is to offer no comfort to those who will become mourners at the conclusion of burial while their dead still lie before them,” because they are in such a bewildered state, they are incapable of absorbing words of comfort.

Visitation has been a longstanding custom in Pittsburgh, despite the fact that it is usually stressful for family members to have to endure a formal “meet and greet” prior to the burial of a loved one.

“Frankly, it’s so ingrained in the Pittsburgh Jewish culture that people expect to do it, without realizing that indeed it adds stress to an already emotionally fraught circumstance,” said Rabbi Mark Mahler, who has served as spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of South Hills since 1980. “Indeed, it’s fair to say that visitation is so deeply ingrained in the Pittsburgh Jewish culture that for mourners to forego visitation would somehow add to their stress.”

Shiva, the seven-day period following the burial of a loved one, is “the more Jewish, human and humane way for well-wishers to express their condolences and thereby for mourners to be comforted,” Mahler said. “G’milut hasadim, Judaism’s principles of acts of loving kindness revolve around the facts that a funeral is to honor the dead whereas shiva is to comfort the bereaved. Visitation diminishes both.”

Jewish tradition offers “many meaningful ways to attend to and comfort mourners,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation. “An hour’s visitation prior to the service can be a gauntlet for family members who might benefit from time with their closest loved ones prior to the funeral. And what’s more, shiva is a very special time to share with mourners.  I fear we are losing the ability to sit quietly with one who is sad.”  

It is not clear how the custom of visitation began in Pittsburgh. Jewish historian Barbara Burstin, author of “Steel City Jews: A History of Pittsburgh and its Jewish Community,” agreed that the practice is unusual but does not know how it emerged here. Gail Ryave, owner and president of Ralph Schugar Chapel, said she had no knowledge of how the practice developed. Likewise, local rabbis who have been in town for decades do not know with certainty how the custom began.

“The practice was already in existence when I came here [in 1955],” said Rabbi Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation. “I don’t know how it came about, but people have gotten accustomed to it.”

When Rabbi Stephen Steindel first arrived in Pittsburgh to assume the pulpit at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills 40 years ago, he heard that the custom of visitation prior to a Jewish funeral in Pittsburgh had been even more extreme, he recalled.

“There used to be visitation for one or two nights before the funeral,” Steindel said. “It looked like a wake. The compromise that had been made was to do it an hour or two before the service began. No one was happy with the compromise, but at least you weren’t doing it the day before.”

Allowing for a day or two of visitation prior to the service caused an additional conflict with Jewish law, Steindel noted.

“It would delay the funeral,” he said. “You would have to build that [extended visitation] into your plan.”

Although Steindel does not know how the practice started, he speculated that the inclusion of a formal visitation was an effort by the Jewish community to emulate non-Jews.

“It certainly isn’t a Jewish custom, the idea that your primary time for consoling the mourners is the wake or the vigil,” said former Pittsburgher Ruth Langer, associate director of the Center for Christian Jewish Learning at Boston College, and author of “Jews and the American Funeral,” an article published within “Only in America: The Open Society and Jewish Law,” edited by Walter Jacob.

Langer agrees that it was most likely the non-Jewish influence that led to Pittsburgh’s Jews adopting the practice of visitation.

In her article, Langer cites a 1952 piece by the late Reform scholar Rabbi Solomon Freehof, demonstrating Steindel’s point that in previous decades, the visitation practice went even further in emulation of gentile practice: “Frequently before the funeral, the body of the deceased will ‘lie in state’ in an open coffin either at the home of the deceased or at the funeral parlor.”

Langer noted her own family history in Pittsburgh in a footnote: “I am told that in the late 1940s and 1950s, my grandparents Stella and Marcus Aaron ‘lay in state’ in their home before their funerals with the casket open.”

The practice of some version of a formal visitation, while longstanding in Pittsburgh, is a completely foreign concept in many other Jewish communities.

“I have never even heard of that,” said Paul Goldstein, general manager at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles. “That is a very non-Jewish thing to do. I have only heard of that in other faiths.”

Although it is unusual to have a formal visitation period announced in an obituary prior to a Jewish funeral, an informal visitation does occur naturally in some communities.

“It’s very common in New York,” said Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, Chevra Kadisha director at Vaad Harabonim of Queens. “But it’s more of an American custom. In Europe, it’s not done. But it is not announced in the obituaries, and there is no formal receiving line.”

In New York, and in some other communities such as Cincinnati and Detroit, the family is gathered in a room for an hour to two before the service, and visitors know that they can come to offer condolences in an informal way.

“But the halacha, the Jewish law, is very clear,” Zohn said. “That is not the time for that kind of interaction.”

When Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, current spiritual leader of Beth El, came to Pittsburgh from Augusta, Ga., in 2002, he had never before seen the custom of visitation prior to a Jewish funeral. Within a short time of assuming his pulpit, he met with a representative of Schugar’s, who asked him, “What do you think about visitation?”

“I said, ‘I love visitation,’” Greenbaum recalled. “We call it shiva.

“I was taken aback by the Pittsburgh tradition,” he said. “It’s taken me a long time to get used to it.”

Part of the problem, according to Greenbaum, is that many people use visitation as a substitute for being present at the funeral service.

“Only about half the people stay for the funeral,” Greenbaum observed, “and only half of those go on to the cemetery.”

From a Jewish perspective, it is inappropriate for a visitor to come to visitation, and then depart, according to Schiff.

 “It is, of course, extraordinary that we cannot take the extra 30 minutes to listen to the summation of decades of life and to give thanks for life itself,” Schiff said. “Jewish tradition actually stipulates that the mitzvah is to accompany the dead to their place of burial, and to participate in kevura (burial).  Even attending a service without burial is insufficient.  It is certainly, therefore, inappropriate to offer visitation as a way for people to think that they have paid their respects without having actually done anything that is significant from a Jewish perspective.”

For some people, attending visitation is “actually a disincentive to visit the shiva home,” said Rabbi James Gibson, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. The preferred practice, he said, is to “either accompany the dead for burial, or be there in the shiva home as a friendly presence and witness.”

Although “there is no source in Jewish law” for the custom of visitation, it can serve a meaningful purpose, according to Jacob.

 “It may not be proper,” Jacob said, “but it’s better than people not expressing their condolences.”

But the custom of visitation, as it is practiced in Jewish Pittsburgh, remains problematic for many area rabbis.

“From the best of my knowledge, it is a non-Jewish practice which should be discouraged,” said Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck. “By starting the comforting process before the burial takes places it is like putting the cart before the horse. If anyone asks, I discourage it.”

Schiff would discourage those who wish to comfort grieving families from even attending a visitation.

“There are no good reasons to practice this custom,” Schiff stressed. “It would be best for the community if more people would simply refuse to accede to participate in visitation, with the goal of bringing the practice to an end. Not only would it help mourners, add dignity and respect to Jewish funerals and put a clear emphasis on Jewish priorities, but it would make a powerful statement about how Jewish funerals are distinguished from those of the general community around about us.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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