Religious Ritual

The Break that Binds: The Central Paradox of Death Rituals

Today’s guest post is written by Isaac Pollak, head of a Jewish Chevrah Kadisha (Chevrah Kadisha is the “Holy Society” or organization of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition and are protected from desecration, willful or not, until burial)


Central to religious practice, rituals may often seem intentionally obtuse to the point of irrationality.  This, in fact may be  their very purpose.  By devising rituals that  at times seem to make little or no sense to the uninitiated, those who learn to perform the rituals, if not understand them, become part of a distinct community.  The fact that rituals often don’t make practical or  rational sense is exactly what makes them useful for  social identification. The cognitive psychologist Christine LeGare has done a number of studies showing that rituals  declare that you  are a member of a particular social group. Lewis Mumford the social philosopher, historian and greatest urbanist of the 20th century, makes a clear  case that what sets humans apart from other animals is not the use of tools but rather our use of language and rituals and that makes us  “Community”.  Sharing information and ideas among participants was the foundation of all societies and “community is the most precious collective invention”.

Although there are rituals designed for every aspect of the human life cycle, the rituals surrounding “DEATH” are often the least understood, yet the most often performed..  Even the irreligious may insist upon death rituals for themselves or their loved ones.  Matthew  Frank in  his book  Preparing the Ghost  speaks about “our need  to mythologize , ritualize and spin tails about that which we  “fear.”

The greater the  lack of  comprehension the increased amount of the rituals with DEATH  by far more ritualized   than any other aspect of a society’s life cycle  in every  culture. The more the rituals the stronger the bonds  of  community  and social  identification. The life cycle events the least understood  , emerge earlier   and are more deeply rooted .

Witness the tragic murder of  three young Israeli teenagers which bought every  dimension of Judaism into a  unified  community-from Ultra   Hassidic  to  Jews  for  Jesus.   Everyone  adopted  and prayed  for  these  young men ” kol Yisrael Arevim zeh l\L’zeh” all of us are responsible  for  one another. Death brought us community  as nothing else  ever could.

A  life broken ,  an  individual   link  lost, paradoxically strengthens the group unity and  identity.   Rituals  give us a sense of control over an area where we have none. Mundane actions are  suffused  with  arbitrary  conventions  and that makes it important to us  and gives us a  sense of  “being in charge”. Rituals  engage members of a  community in the collective enterprise of  building  and  sustaining  a  “PEOPLE.”

Jewish  death   rituals  have a  foundation  that travels back in time  3000  years and has made us a community like none other. In fact, a new  developing  Jewish community,  has an obligation  to  set  aside   ground    for a  cemetery  before  setting aside  land  for a  synagogue.  How  wise  were  our Rabbis.

Let us  preciously  value these  so vitally  irrational  traditions  and hoary  rituals  that brings us together to pray, to improve  ourselves and to  elevate ourselves  in  response to  mysteries  we  don’t  comprehend.

Let me  conclude  by paraphrasing  the German poet Rainer M. Rilke  in his letters  to a  young  Poet:

“I beg you  to have patience  with everything  unresolved in your heart  and try  to love  the questions  themselves  as if they were locked  rooms  or  books written in a very  foreign tongue. Don’t  search  for the answers , which could  not be given  to you  now, because  you  would not   be able  to live them. And the point is  to live everything . Live the questions now . Perhaps then, someday far in the future,  you  will  gradually, without even noticing it, live  your  way into the answer.”



Isaac Pollak is President and CEO of an International Marketing Concern   for the past  4  decades. He holds graduate degrees in Marketing, Industrial Psychology, Art History, and Jewish Material Culture from City College, LIU, JTS, and Columbia University.  He has been the Rosh/head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, for over 35 decades, and is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha mortuary  material cultural items, having several hundred in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Born and raised in NYC, married, with 3 children and 3 grandchildren.

A Symbol in the Sky

You get home from a stressful day working at the funeral home.  You change out of your suit and into your comfortable clothes and as soon as you sit down, your cell phone rings.

“There’s a death at such and such place.”  And in your head, you’re thinking, “Gahhh!  I just … took … my suit off!”  It seems to happen all the time.

So you grab the suit that you so carefully hung in your closet, tighten your tie, slap your uncomfortable dress shoes back on your feet and put the drink that you just poured yourself back in the fridge.

Last week, I got home at around 4:30 on a Friday and had just put my feet up.  And you guessed it.  A death call.

A young woman.


As I drove away from the hospital, the sun set was spectacular.  It changed every minute I drove, so I decided to pull out my phone, pull off the side of the snow covered road and take some photos for Instagram.

This is the unfiltered photo:


I ran it through a couple filters on Instagram, posted it and didn’t think anything of it until “casem5” commented, “Am I the only one who sees a woman with long hair in the clouds?”

And then I, too (with the help of my imagination), saw it.  A woman’s profile, looking upward into the heavens.


The next day, we showed the family this photo.  And of course it touched them.  They had experienced pain.  Grief.  And immense heartache as they had watched their mother deteriorate to death.  And when you see this much pain, it can feel as though the world is against you.  That God himself has set his face against you.

Call me a skeptic.  Call me cynical.  But I don’t believe this filtered Instagram photo is a message from the deceased.  Or a message from God.  This isn’t Jesus toast.  I do, however, see it as a symbol … a symbol of goodness … a symbol that maybe God is for us.

And I think it’s helpful to distinguish between symbols and signs.

Symbols are important in death because they can express ideas and feelings where words fall short.   And this beautiful sunset was their symbol of their mothers’ peace and freedom from the pain that wrecked her young body.  Symbols reach where words cannot.  But, reaching for signs … looking for communication from the other side can, at times, be maddening and confusing.  It’s dangerous — even neurotic — for our already grieving mind to go looking for signs from the deceased; but symbols are different … because symbols find us … they communicate what we can’t.  Whether it be the cross, or a woman in the clouds, symbols help us see the heavens.  And this symbol in the clouds gave this grieving family a small glimmer of hope in their hour of darkness.  Symbols, like the cross, help us believe.  They help us see the heaven in the midst of the hell.

Ritual: The Muscle Memory of Grief

Over the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating why the West (America, Europe, etc.) has so much aversion to death, while other — less “developed — cultures see death as less alien.  I’ve come up with two major reasons:

One.  Modernity.

Our modern world takes death care away from families and puts it in the hands of “professionals”, thus industrializing death.  Instead of the dying dwelling at our homes, we give them to nursing homes.  For more of my thoughts on this, here’s an article I wrote.

The modern world also likes providing answers to life’s questions.  So when death comes with its silence and mystery, we are rendered uncomfortable.

Two.  We lack ritual. There’s three reasons why there’s a lack of ritual:

1.)  We tend to be individualistic, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it produces a lack of community.

2).  We tend to dislike tradition.

3.)  We are becoming post-religious.

The following is my (rather poor) attempt to explain why the lack of ritual increases our aversion to death.


Muscle memory is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.

Muscle memory is what enables musicians to thoughtlessly play complicated music with near perfection.

Muscle memory is the product of laborious habit that makes incredibly difficult tasks seem like minutia.

I just came back from indoor rock climbing.

I’ve seen athletic and strong newbies come to the gym and they look like fools trying to climb routes.  Falling down on their bums, scraping their arms up and getting all nervous when they get to the top of the route.

Climbing is both strength and technique muscle memory.  And while newbies may be strong and athletic, if they don’t know how to move their bodies on the wall, they’re destined to fall and fail.


Grief is similar. The walls of bereavement are very intimidating to even the spiritually and psychologically strong.  It doesn’t matter how whole you are, you will fall and you will fail.

Unless you enter through the trodden paths of ritual.

The muscle memory of grief is ritual. Ritual allows us to take the incredibly difficult task of mourning and find a way to persevere, even when it seems we shouldn’t.

Muscle memory is usually something you or I create through practice.  I climb routes at the climbing gym, my muscles get used to moving a certain way.

You practice the guitar day in and day out and your fingers move like jazz.

This is where the whole muscle memory analogy starts to fall apart when we relate it to grief.

While a professional’s muscle memory is something he or she created, death ritual muscle memory is something our community has created and it can only be “learned” within community.

You didn’t create it.  It’s something we inherit … or something we can join.


This from Alla Bozarth in “Life Is Goodbye, Life is Hello: Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss”:

Funerals are the rituals we create to help us face the reality of death, to give us a way of expressing our response to that reality with other persons, and to protect us from the full impact of the meaning of death for ourselves.

The problem is this: so many of us have disconnected ourselves from community, tradition and a religion that we’ve never received the graces of grief ritual.

If we have community in place,

if we embrace tradition in times of death

and we’re willing to involve the motion and movement of religion,

we may find life and meaning in a task that many onlookers see as insurmountable.

Ritual doesn’t allow you to overcome grief (grief may never be overcome).  It doesn’t allow you to work through your grief faster.  Nor does make death more tolerable.  And it certainly won’t make you a “professional.”

Ritual allows you to confront a seemingly impossible task in the context of community.

Why is the West so adverse to death? Because devoid of ritual, confronting death is like asking me to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23.

Should Pastors Preach the Gospel at Funerals?

Yesterday a modified version of my “Why 99.9% of Pastors Agree with Rob Bell … at Funerals” was featured on  That post stirred up a lot of discussion on my website and it’s doing the same over at Church Leaders, where, I was told, it vaulted itself into the Top Ten most read articles at Church Leaders.

It was truly an honor to be featured at Church Leaders and I was so glad for the discussion it sparked!

There’s been a theme in the reactions from pastors to this post (and, I should add, I have the utmost respect for pastors and the work they do).  And the theme response is this: “I don’t preach anybody to heaven, nor do I preach them to hell … I JUST PREACH THE GOSPEL!”

Such a response sorta misses the point of the article.

The point of the article is to underscore that pastors will often preach a wider hope during death that contrasts both their attitude towards the lost and their theology.  Ultimately, my intention was that they’d see this contradiction and be moved to question both their theology and attitudes in light of the wider hope they have at the funerals of unbelievers.

Yet, not only do some pastors miss the point of the article, I think “Just preaching the Gospel” misses the point of the funeral.


This is one of the more controversial topics that’s thrown around by families we serve.  They ask, “Should we or shouldn’t we get a preacher who preaches the Gospel?”

Some families, even Christian families, are adamant that funerals are NOT a time for the preacher to use the death of their loved one as a platform for evangelism.

While other families are equally as adamant that funerals are a time to “take inventory” of the lives of the living.

Here’s my take on the whole thing: some Christian Pastors (and many of us Christians, including me) are losing touch essentially because we have a dualistic and individualist understanding of the Gospel!

How do I know we’re losing touch?

Because families, that would normally use a Christian minister are turning to other sources.

The Celebrant Movement is taking off, and quite honestly, they do an exceptional job in honoring the memory of the deceased.

Celebrants make the service incredibly community oriented, often bringing memory objects that help spur family and friends into sharing their thoughts and feelings for the loved one.

And that’s essentially what Celebrants do so well … they find a way to involve both the memories and voices of others in the service, creating a collage of memories by the voices of family and friends, all of which produces a great sense of life in the midst of death, as people are laughing, crying, hugging … all during the funeral service.

Some pastors are great at encouraging family and friends to speak (in fact, many in my community are really good at it), but others will take the funeral as a platform in disregard of the memory of the deceased.


The reason for Pastors losing touch is because their Gospel is out of touch with the present, as it’s so focused on the future.

As I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, we’re more worried about getting the individual soul to heaven than about bringing the kingdom to the world.  We’re more worried about getting “decisions for Jesus” than we are about making Jesus disciples who will transform the world now.

In the context of a funeral, part of “transforming the world now” is addressing death as real, our grief as real, acknowledging the sorrow of God over death, and yet planting that seed of hope in the Kingdom come and resurrection.

It’s bringing our memories of this world together with our hope of the world that’s been inaugurated by Christ and is here, but is still not yet.

It’s not about emphasizing sin over grace, or grace over sin, BUT EMPHASIZING CHRIST IN THE WORLD … TRANSFORMING IT INTO SOMETHING NEW!


Should pastors preach the Gospel at funerals?


And no.

The Gospel isn’t about bringing somebody to heaven.  It’s about bringing heaven to us.  Wasn’t that the Good News … that the Messiah had come to dwell with humanity?

And if heaven can be brought to a funeral, through good memories, love, tears, laughter, correction, and the hope of Christ, than by all means preach it.


Dressing Dad

Today, Ken Knickerbocker and I are trading posts.  Ken generously provides the residents of Parkesburg, Pennsylvania (which is where my wife and I reside) with “Parkesburg’s News and Happenings” at his website, Parkesburg Today, fulfilling a much needed service to our community.

On May 1st of this year Ken suffered the loss of his father.  I’ve always thought one of the best things we can do as we experience loss is try and write our thoughts down. Not only has Ken done this, but he was gracious enough to share his thoughts here, allowing us to take part in his experience by sharing his lose of a parent, as well as the funeral rites he gave to his father, and the help provided him by a funeral director.

Sharing a personal grief experience with another is a sacred act, so read as though you are on sacred ground.


A Photo of Ken's Father.

All alone laying on a table in the middle of a big empty room with only a hospital-like gown covering his body is how I found my father last week when my brother and I went to the Minshall Shropshire-Bleyler funeral home in Brookhaven a few miles southwest of Media, Pennsylvania to dress his body in preparation for the viewing and funeral service two days later.

My father had passed away three days earlier following a four year battle with cancer and Parkinson’s disease.  He had taken a bad fall in January and ended up in the hospital with a fractured skull.

After his fall it was all downhill health wise for the poor man. Over the next four months until his death on May 1st he spent at most two, maybe three, weeks at home.

His passing, while sad, provided my father certain relief from his physical ailments and an increasingly frail, feeble existence.

Two days after he passed, I went to the funeral home with my stepmother and siblings to finalize arrangements for my father’s funeral and burial.  Mike Okon, the funeral director, met us at the door, welcomed us, expressed sorrow for our loss and ushered us into the funeral home’s spacious conference room.

Mike sat patiently for an hour as my stepmother and I hammered out the wording of my father’s obituary and then reviewed the details of the itemized invoice line by line with her to ensure she understood and agreed with each of the several charges.  At the end of the session Mike walked our family to the door remembering each of our names as he said goodbye.

Two days later my brother and I returned to the funeral home to dress my father.  Dressing a body is not something one does every day but in our religious tradition men dress deceased males and women do the same for their departed sisters.  Usually someone from the deceased person congregation is designated to dress the corpse but in my father’s case, my step mother assigned the task to my older brother Chuck and I.

While Chuck and I have been members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) since my parents joined the church in the late 1950’s, neither of us had much experience dressing a body.  Chuck had never done it and I had only done it once, a few years back at the Wilde Funeral Home in Parkesburg under the watchful and ever helpful guidance of Bud Wilde.

Mike ushered us into the room where my Father’s body lay and turned to leave.  Quickly, before he reached the door, I summoned Mike back and asked him to stay and assist us.  He informed us he had never dressed a Mormon for burial and wasn’t sure how he could help.

Over the next hour Mike demonstrated all the attributes of the true professional.  As my brother and I slipped slacks and a shirt, both white, over my father’s lifeless limbs, Mike showed us how to shift my father’s weight to position the clothes on his body.  Once the shirt was buttoned, Mike tied the tie, also white, and slipped it over my Father’s head and under his shirt collar, tightening it perfectly around his neck.

Chuck placed socks and shoes, also white, on my father’s feet.  Using tricks of his trade Mike filled out my father’s clothing to mask the weight dad had lost in the months leading up to his death.  Finally, as Chuck and I placed the robes sacred to our faith over my father’s shoulders and around his waist, Mike made sure every crease and fold laid flat.

Thanks to Mike’s master’s touch in the hour it took to dress him, my father’s body was transformed from a lifeless corpse to a man ready to meet his maker.

A tranquil experience my brother and I won’t soon forget made possible by a consummate professional funeral director.

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