Do We Honor Our Dead – Or Worship Them?

In his classic book The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Maurice Lamm wrote these words about the care of the body of someone who has just died:

A human being is equated with a Torah scroll that was impaired and can no longer be used at religious services. While the ancient scroll no longer serves any useful ritual purpose, it is revered for the exalted function it once filled. Man was created in the image of God and, although the pulse of life is no more, the human form must be respected for having once embodied the spirit of God, and for the character and the personality it housed.[1]

It would be very easy for someone to conclude that we Jews and our tradition seem to worship the dead.  We name children after them and make donations in their memory. We have tombstones erected, plaques engraved, candles lit, and trees planted to show how revered they are. No matter how happy the holiday may be, we always have a prayer in services specifically to recall them, and we even stand up for it! And, having a Yizkor service four times a year to pay tribute to our deceased loved ones could also support that conclusion. That is third only to Shabbat and Yom Kippur in terms of the number of services for a given purpose.

The comparison of the deceased to a Torah scroll is clearly not a case of worship, since we honor and respect the Torah instead of worshipping it. In order to truly be an object of worship, someone or something is prayed to, not about, as we do in regard to our loved ones. Nor is death worshipped in Judaism. Our religious tradition places such a value on life itself that its main concern in death is the dignity of the deceased and doing only what will bring honor to and retain respect for his or her memory. Another consideration is how we deal with death. As Maurice Lamm has written: “It is only the acceptance of the reality of death that enables us to overcome the trauma of death.”[2]

And, I feel that the reason we do so much to honor the memory of the deceased is that the value we attach to life enables us to find and sustain meaning after someone’s death. Naming a child for a relative he or she never knew creates a vital link that spans the generations. A child eventually learns about that person, whose name was chosen because of the life he or she lived rather than because of her or his death.  The stones, the plaques, the candles, and the trees are tangible tokens of the love and devotion that survive death.  And our services – their frequency and their content – reflect the traditional view that there is a point to remembering, as individuals and as a community.

Remembering is as much an emotional activity as an intellectual exercise. Intellectually, we can remember facts and figures, dates and details, but we do so in a virtually clinical way. When we remember people, we generally do so emotionally, calling to mind the feelings we had for them, what they meant to us, or the experiences we shared with them.  We may even place them on a pedestal, so to speak, enlarging their positive qualities and forgetting their negative qualities. Or, we may be more realistic about who they were and what they did, recognizing that, by our admitting that they may not have been perfect, we are not desecrating their memory.

We do not worship our dead; we honor them. Our remembering is indicative of a love that conquers death, of a devotion that defies separation, of an unselfishness that towers over despair. The human ability to remember, and to express feelings about our memories, and to take actions based on our memories, is very much cherished and valued in Judaism. Above all, our remembering loved ones who have died brings an added value to the life they lived and affirms a sense of worth which their death can never erase. In bringing honor to them, we bring honor to ourselves. But the point of it all is for their benefit, not for ours.  Still, we are better people when we do it.


[1]  Lamm, The Jewish Way, 3

[2] Ibid., 31.

About Rabbi Stephen Karol 11 Articles
Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and also at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Stony Brook University. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson, New York, with his wife, Donna.

1 Comment

  1. Well-written engaging and important content. As someone who wasn’t sure I would survive treatments for cancer, I worried about how I would be remembered by my young children. When I got a second chance, I recognized the value of remembering loved ones who passed by lighting an extra candle on Shabbat or a holiday, by remembering a story about them and putting money in our Tzedakah box, writing the story of the people my children were named after in their Bar/Bat Mitzvah booklet. If we don’t remember and honor the memory of those who have passed, our children won’t know what to do for us when it’s out turn.

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