Speak at the grave: with reservations

By Simon Rocker, December 4, 2008

The United Synagogue this week finally cleared the way for lay people to give eulogies at funerals.

The organisation had come under increasing pressure to change a long-standing policy whereby only members of the clergy could address mourners at the cemetery.

From now on, a member of the deceased’s family will be able to give the hesped (eulogy) at the discretion of the officiating rabbi.

The executive of the US’s Rabbinical Council had approved the change in August but head office delayed the implementation pending further consultations with the Beth Din and burial society staff.

Jeremy Jacobs, the new US chief executive, who took office in October, said: “We are delighted to announce today, in response to our members’ wishes, a new set of guidelines. Following a detailed consultation with the Rabbinical Council, we have ensured that family members may participate fully in services at our cemeteries.”

According to the guidelines, a relative may speak in addition to the rabbi, although only one member of the family can do so: a hesped may be given only by Jews: and it should “not normally be longer than about five minutes”.

Rabbi Daniel Roselaar, rabbinic adviser to the burial society, said: “We want to respect the sensitivities of bereaved families on the one hand while simultaneously maintaining the integrity and solemnity of the traditional burial services.”

He believed that “the bulk of rabbis are in favour of the change. But we recognise that there are those whose experience in the ministry has made them feel that it’s best kept in-house”.

The guidelines on who can give a hesped were drawn up, he explained, “not to make any distinction between men and women”.

Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, chairman of RCUS, said: “We are encouraged that the RCUS was able to achieve its objective in ensuring that where appropriate members will be able to able to offer their own eulogy.”

Rights and wrongs of lay eulogies

Only immediate members of the family may deliver the eulogy — friends and colleagues should speak at the shivah.
Eulogies may only be delivered by Jews
Only one family member may deliver a hesped in addition to the rabbi
The decision whether to allow a family member to give the eulogy remains at the discretion of the officiating rabbi
The rabbi should be given a copy of the family hesped in advance “if reasonable and practicable” and has the right to veto any part of it he deems “religiously inappropriate”
If the family members cannot agree who should speak, then it is the rabbi’s duty to give the hesped
A person should advise the eulogiser to be “appropriately attired” and that he or she should speak for no longer than “about five minutes”.
The rabbi is still expected to introduce or conclude the hesped with appropriate divrei preidah (parting words)

Last updated: 12:45pm, December 4 2008