Why Do We Have a Ceremony Called a Funeral?
By Rabbi Boruch Smith
Overview: Rabbi Smith discusses many Torah sources and takes a deep look into the reasons why we have a funeral, why we bury the dead and what is the importance of a eulogy/hesped?
After the person dies, there is a Mitzva to bury the body. The question is why do we need to bury the body, why can’t we just burn it? It is taught in Devarim 21:23 לֹא ־תָלִ֨ין נִבְלָת֜וֹ עַל ־הָעֵ֗ץ כִּֽי־ קָב֤וֹר תִּקְבְּרֶ֙נּוּ֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא כִּֽי־ קִלְלַ֥ת אֱלֹהִ֖ים תָּל֑וּי וְלֹ֤א תְטַמֵּא֙ אֶת־ אדְמָ֣תְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָֽה: “Do not leave his corpse on the tree; rather you should surely bury it, on that day, because it is a profanity to Hashem that he is hanging; and do not make impure your land that the Lord your God has given to you as an inheritance”. From this verse we learn that it is a positive commandment in the Torah to bury a corpse. The Gemara brings two possible reasons for burial: to prevent shame to the Nifter as the body will decay or as a kaparah through the disintegration of the body. The Maharal explains that it is fitting for a person to be buried because burial is a concealment of something which will be in the future, and because man is in potential to live in the future, that potential man must be concealed through burial. That which is revealed is actualized and that which is in potential is concealed. The Maharal continues to explain the importance of the burial itself – Man was created from the earth and from every part of the earth, in order that no matter where man will be buried; the earth will receive his body. Since Man is a composite of all the earth, he is defined as a complete entity. All other entities have their root in one or other element and therefore can be annihilated through one of the other entities. For example, an entity of fire can be destroyed through water, but Man is a composite and therefore cannot be annihilated. Since Man was created from earth, he returns to the earth to retain his potential. The Sefer Yesod Ha’avodah takes it even further to explain that there is a part of the Nefesh that will remain around the grave waiting for the resurrection and that is the part of the Tzadik which benefits from the Torah which is said over in his name, expressed as “the lips moving”. Cremating the body deprives the Man of the benefits mentioned above and the people who cremate the body transgress the positive mitzva mentioned above, and in many cases deny the resurrection. The question is will there be a resurrection for those that are not buried? The Gemara in Gittin tells of a ship filled with 400 young women and 400 young men that were being taken to Rome for prostitution. The girls wished to throw themselves overboard but before doing so asked if they will merit Olam Haba? They brought a verse from Tehillim that Hashem says that He will return them from Basha and from the depths of the sea. From here the Gemara learns that even if someone is eating by an animal or is drowned and the body is lost, still they will merit resurrection. In the case of being burnt to ashes, we have the Shibolei Leket who learns from the Akedah, that Yitzchak was offered as a sacrifice and then he was burnt on the altar and then he experienced resurrection, at which point the angles recited the second brocha of the Amidah, blessed is the One that raises the dead. Since we need to bury the body, why do we need a whole ceremony of eulogy and accompanying the body? Why do we need eulogies? The Gemara teaches us that eulogizing a Tzadik holds back suffering. On a simple level the reason would be that through the eulogy people will come to realize the tremendous loss to them and in that way it will lead them to make an accounting of their lives and do Teshuva. In this way the death of the Tzadik will be an atonement for the people. For this reason we learn that the reward of a eulogy is crying and in fact we see that Avraham came to Chevron to eulogize Sarah and to cry. We would imagine that the crying should come first. However, if we really think about it, for the Tzadik that has passed on, he is now in a better world and why should we cry for him. Rather the crying is for us and the purpose of the eulogy is to awaken the people to Teshuva. This also accounts for the fact that the eulogy is delivered in a crying tone, to awaken the hearts. In the olden days they would hire women to wail and beat their hearts as part of the eulogy as is written in Yeshayahu 32:12 על שדים ספדים “On the breast eulogize”. The death of a righteous person (איש כשר) is very precious to Hashem and therefore the tears that are shed for this person is also very precious to Hashem and He counts them and places them in his treasury. This is a tremendous protection for us, as when a righteous person passes on, there is an energy of strict justice in the air. This can cause harm to those around him and therefore protection is needed. Through the eulogy, tears are shed, and Teshuva is done, and that becomes a protection for those around. This explains the Gemara which speak about the dangers of not eulogizing the Tzadik correctly. The Chatam Sofer explains why Hashem’s counting the tears will help. We know that anything which is counted does not experience blessing. That means, that there will be no increase in what is counted. Now in the case of tears, we shed them over the great loss that we have experienced, therefore, if Hashem will count them, that will result in protecting us from an increase in tears as a result of some other loss which we would have needed to experience in the future. There is an interesting Gemara that Rav Yehuda the son of Rav Shmuel the son of Shilat said in the name of Rav; from the eulogy of a man it is made clear as to whether he is a ben Olam Haba or not. The Gemara finds this teaching of Rav very strange as it was Rav himself that told Rav Shmuel the son of Shilat, that when Rav dies, Rav Shmuel should eulogize him in a way that will bring the people to tears, because Rav will be there and he wants the people to realize their loss. The difficulty that the Gemara is experiencing is as follows: Rav was teaching Rav Shmuel that Olam Haba is a reality of existence. When a person dies, they are still very much alive in Olam Haba. When something always exists before your eyes, it is difficult to forget that thing. When that thing does not exist anymore, then it is forgotten very quickly. Therefore, teaches Rav; that if the person that passed on is still alive in Olam Haba, then they are not forgotten and the reaction of the people to the eulogy is an indication as to their status in Olam Haba. However, if they have not merited Olam Haba, there will be no reaction of loss or yearning from the people. Now the Gemara is confused, because Rav tells Rav Shmuel to make sure to awaken the feelings of the people at his funeral, seeming to imply that Rav without the eulogy would not draw tears indicating that there was no yearning, meaning that he is not worthy of Olam Haba. To this the Gemara answers that every case of an old person dying needs a eulogy to waken the yearning of the people because the natural attitude is that he lived a long life and has now moved on. Whether this inspiring eulogy will them move the crowd to tears will be a clear indication of his having achieved Olam Haba. What we learn from this Gemara is the capricious nature of man and the need to awaken him to place that which is important, in front of his eyes always. It is natural to allow the old to be forgotten. If they are not there right in your face, it is easier to just move on. The Beis Hamikdash was destroyed a long time ago, it is forgotten, let us move on. To this the Torah says; NO! you can experience the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash but only if it is still alive, alive in you, and there is a longing, a yearning for it to be rebuilt. Sometimes people think that Hashem is old, an old man with a long white beard. At the beginning when He took us out of Egypt, He was a young strong warrior, but now He has grown old and old people are forgotten; NO!! screams Mishlei שויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד you cannot forget. Hashem is alive and is to be found in every moment of our lives. Michtav M’Eliyahu teaches that there is a further reason for a eulogy and that is for the honor of the person that died. As the Gemara in Sanhedrin 46B teaches יקרא דשכבי “the honor of the dead”. Even after the person passes on, their Soul still gets pleasure from the honor. So much so that he brings an example from the Gemara where a Sage had passed away at the same time as a tax collector and their coffins had got mixed up and the people that came to eulogize the Sage ended up singing the praises of the tax collector, thinking he was the Sage. The Gemara explains why the tax collector deserved the honor and why the Sage deserved the disgrace. However, what is interesting was how it could be an honor to the tax collector when he knows that they are not speaking about him. Answers Rav Dessler that his need for honor was so great, that he was willing to receive this illusion of honor, to satisfy his craving. After the eulogies, the people will accompany the body to the grave. The Gemara speaks about the importance of the לויה “escort”. Death is a journey and just as we will accompany a person leaving of home, we need to offer the Nifter the same courtesy. The escort is a declaration that we are bonded with you and although there will be a geographical distance between us (as in the case of someone leaving our home), or a world difference between us and the Nifter, nevertheless you are not gone and forgotten. This is also one of the reasons we do not dry our hands after leaving the funeral, to show that we are not washing our hands of you and moving on. On a deeper level The Gemara teaches that if a person does not escort the body, he transgresses the verse in Mishlei 17:5 לֹעֵ֣ג לָ֭רָשׁ חֵרֵ֣ף עֹשֵׂ֑הוּ: “One who mocks the poor insults his Maker” Poverty is not an unusual circumstance but comes as part of the cycle of life. It was determined by Hashem that this is a way of life for some people, therefore, if one will insult a poor man, he is really insulting his Maker. One who will support the poor man, wishes to play a role in the cycle of life that Hashem created. Death is also part of the cycle of life and since he cannot bury himself, he needs the help of others. The reward of this Mitzvah is written in Mishlei 19:17 מַלְוֵ֣ה יְ֭קֹוָק ח֣וֹנֵֽן דָּ֑ל “The lender of Hashem is one who gives to the poor”. Since the poor man cannot borrow money because he does not have from where to pay back, so to the dead man cannot pay back the kindness of his funeral, therefore, it is as if Hashem is taking upon Himself the loan.
Rabbi Boruch Smith
Rabbi Boruch Smith was born and raised in South Africa and made his way to Israel where over the last 30 years he has directed and taught at numerous yeshivos and seminary colleges. His teachings are filled with deep, intricate and sometimes complex Torah lessons. He has many dedicated students throughout the world and especially in his home town where he has been giving a weekly Parsha shiur continuously for 30 years.