Jewish funeral service prepared for atheists and suicides

By Simon Rocker, March 18, 2010

A new funeral service published by the Reform Movement includes alternative material designed specifically for atheists.

As well as traditional prayers for a funeral or tombstone consecration, the book contains a large anthology of readings, with secular writers such as Saul Bellow, quoted alongside rabbis.

It also contains a prayer to be read at the burial of suicides, who are traditionally stigmatised in Jewish law.

The book's editor, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, the former principal of the Leo Baeck College, said: "The previous funeral book has been used for 30 years. What we wanted to do was to allow more options to make it easier for rabbis taking the service, to meet the needs of the people who are there."

In the case of a funeral of a convinced atheist, he said: "The family can be in a bit of a quandary. If you respect the beliefs of the person who is dead, then the liturgical stuff would have been very strange and not asked for. But the family needs to have the comfort of a proper religious funeral. So we deliberately looked for material from people like Claire Rayner [vice-president of the British Humanist Association]."

Another addition is a prayer for the stillborn, who have been "rather neglected in Jewish tradition," Rabbi Magonet said. "We thought it important to acknowledge the difficulties women have in this situation."

A further prayer attempts to address the reality of someone who has committed suicide.

"It is very sad when everyone knows what has happened, but there is a kind of denial. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth," Rabbi Magonet said.

The prayer "hints at suicide without spelling it out, acknowledging that people suffer in ways that others can't understand".

Claire Rayner welcomed the inclusion of hers and other secular contributions. She said: "I am glad it is in there and they acknowledge we exist. I see it as a progressive move. I think it's splendid to reach out to atheists who may be in the congregation. It is a mature and grown up way to behave.

"I know an enormous number of Jewish people in the media and I don't know a single one who is not an atheist. Belief is a bad habit."

Last updated: 4:44pm, March 18 2010