I recently lost my 23 years old son, suddenly and unexpectedly. I am inconsolable. Friends from school, work, and the neighborhood that are Afro-American have shown great love which I appreciate more than words can express, but they don't know of our different customs. I am getting cards with cash in them to help pay for the funeral. I am very uncomfortable. I don't want to insult anyone. Gentile fiends are also sending traditional Christian baskets with floral arrangement of lillies, etc. What should I do?
A Medrash tells us that one Shabbat afternoon the two sons of Rabbi Meir and his wife Bruria died suddenly. She left them in their beds and covered them over with a sheet. At the end of Shabbat when Rabbi Meir came home he asked, “ where are my two sons?” She told them they went to the Beit Midrash (study hall) and that they would soon be coming home. She gave him food and after he ate she said she wanted to ask him a question. 'Yesterday a man came and gave me something to watch for him. Now he’s coming to take it back. Should I give it to him or not?' 'Of course', he said, 'you must return it'. She took him by the hand to the room where their two sons lay, and took off the sheet. When he saw their sons lying in front of them he began to cry. Bruriah said 'what happened here is just like you have me. We were given them to hold for a short time and now we have to give back the precious items to its owners'.
The parable is told of a king who had a precious stone that somehow had its surface indelibly scratched. The king was beside himself and called his trusted friend asking him what can be done to fix the stone. His friend said 'I can't repair it, but give it to me, perhaps I can do something with it.' He took the precious stone and using the scratch as a base carved a beautiful, many petaled rose on its surface. Returning it to the king he said, 'while I can’t repair the loss, I tried to make it a foundation for something else beautiful.'
Your friends and co-workers are reaching out to you to express to you that they stand together and empathize with you. My suggestion is to tell them your great appreciation for their donations, and to use those funds for a holy and charitable purpose, perhaps something associated with young people in need, or, if there are sufficient funds to establish a permanent foundation as a memorial to your dear son.
Words of consolation are inadequate at this time and your friends are attempting to show their support with the floral gifts. Perhaps these tributes can be a foundation for a charitable cause in his memory. I would suggest telling one of the co-workers the the Jewish custom is not to have flowers at the funeral. If they nonetheless come, acknowledge them and share them with an old-age home or with a retirement community. A floral tribute or bouquet can help cheer up the day for a shut-in or hospital patient.
I pray that you should be able to find comfort soon and have beauty of his life continue with good deeds done for others in his memory.
First of all, I am very sorry for your loss. I pray that God grants you comfort.
In terms of your specific question, the difficult thing here is that your friends and community members seem to want to help and show you that they care. The question is, how do you acknowledge that you value their gesture, even if the actual "help" is not really that helpful, and may even make you uncomfortable?
Jewish tradition believes that honesty is extremely important, but there are certain exceptions. Most notably, one is allowed to be less than truthful in order to save another person public embarrassment. Taking things even further, the Talmud goes so far as to equate publicly shaming your neighbor (malbin pnei chavero) with murder (Bab Metzia 58b-59a). With that in mind, while the gifts of these friends are not helpful, it would seem that you want to go to great lengths to avoid embarrassing anyone who was simply trying to help. Judaism also likes to dan le'chaf zechut, lean towards the side of merit and assume that these people are trying to do something that is a comforting gesture.
So, given that Judaism encourages us to assume good intentions and avoid embarrassing others, I would say that you simply should accept these gifts and put them to appropriate use. If someone gives you money for the funeral and you can actually use the money for that purpose, I would encourage you to do so. If you feel strange about accepting that type of gift, perhaps you could give the money to a charity that would have been meaningful to your son. In this particular case I am not sure that you have to share this decision with the person who gave you the donation as you don't want to embarrass or upset them. In terms of the flowers, I would simply accept them and thank the person for thinking of you.
On a different note--if you are not a part of a Jewish community, I would also strongly encourage you to find a place--perhaps a synagogue or a Jewish Family Services support group, that could be helpful to you during this difficult time in your life. Hopefully, such a community would both provide comfort, and familiarity when it comes to being supportive in ways that make you more comfortable during your time of mourning. Please feel free to e-mail me directly if I can help you make this connection.
My condolences to you. May the Holy One comfort you along with all who have suffered a loss.
It is wonderful that you have such a caring and supportive community of friends who are able to reach out to you in this time of need. It is no surprise that they seek to comfort you in the ways they know best, through the customs of their own families or communities. You don't say if there was any announcement shared that detailed the ways you would have desired such support to come, but that may or may not have made a difference. When tragedy strikes, people react instinctively. The customs they have learned become the model for the way they offer support.
You ask what you should do with their donations of money or flowers. First, express your gratitude, understanding the spirit in which their gift was given. This is not a moment to enlighten them about Jewish customs. Acknowledge their heartfelt expressions of consolation.
The flowers can certainly be displayed in some manner that would not be disruptive. I might spread them about the room rather than collecting them around the casket. If the donations of cash were given explicitly to help defray the cost of the funeral, you may certainly use them in that way. If you are not comfortable, accept them as a tzedaka (charity) offering and donate them as a memorial gift in your son's name to a cause that you feel is appropriate.
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