QUESTION: I have been to a couple of Jewish funerals here recently. At one, flowers were put on the grave, but on another they were not. But I have also seen pictures of wreaths on graves in Israel. So what is the correct practice?
Rabbi Naftali Brawer: The question of placing flowers on graves does not come up in the classic codes of Jewish law. However, it does arise in the 19th- and 20th-century halachic responsa literature, and the consensus is that it is not permitted.
The reasons range widely. Decorating graves with flowers undermines the egalitarian value that rich and poor, at least in death, are treated equally. If flowers were allowed, the rich would outdo the poor. Secondly, the frivolity associated with flowers is inconsistent with the belief that, in the world of truth, the departed is standing in judgement.
Thirdly, it is a violation of ba’al tashchit, the prohibition against unnecessary waste, since the flowers serve no useful purpose. Fourthly, there is a specific prohibition against deriving any benefit from articles designated for the burial. This would include flowers, which give off a pleasant scent.
On closer inspection, none of these reasons stand up to scrutiny. It is hard to see why flowers should be prohibited on the grounds of egalitarianism, when the rich are free to erect expensive gravestones, not to mention reserve expensive plots in the most exclusive parts of a cemetery. Similarly, it is hard to see why flowers are any less consistent with celestial judgement than decorative tombstones, hedges, or the small coloured stones that are frequently left at gravesite after a visit.
It is quite a stretch to assert flowers left at a grave serve no purpose. Those who carefully choose them would argue they serve a very important purpose: to honour the memory of a loved one. And the issue of benefiting from articles designated for burial would apply only to flowers placed on a fresh grave, not to flowers left months on.
One reason, however, is highlighted by every source: that is, placing flowers at a grave is a violation of chukkat hagoy, an imitation of non-Jewish practices. Chukkat hagoy is a rather nebulous concept. It can be restricted to non-Jewish practices that involve worship or expanded to include all sorts of cultural behaviours. That these modern halachists appeal to an expansive notion of chukkat hagoy to prohibit flowers speaks volumes about the threat of assimilation in a post-enlightenment society. A reality that did not exist in the same way for earlier halachists, and to a large extent, does not feature in contemporary Israel with its large Jewish majority.
Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation
Rabbi Romain: This is a good example of how one often hears a co-religionist saying adamantly “Jews don’t do that”, when what they should say is “Some Jews don’t do that and some do”. For despite us having a common identity, there is much diversity, from Chasidic to Mitnagdic, from Ashkenazi to Sephardi, from Progressive to Orthodox, from Newcastle shuls to Cornwall communities.
Think of those who do or do not eat peas at Pesach, those synagogues that open or close their car parks on Shabbat, those who opt for burial or cremation, those who sit when reciting the Shema and those who stand for it.
The same applies to flowers at a funeral. In A Guide to Life, which was sanctioned by two United Synagogue Chief Rabbis, Rabbi Harry Rabinowicz writes: “Flowers played an important part in the idolatrous rites of many ancient peoples… The placing of flowers on the grave is therefore regarded as chukkat hagoy (pagan custom) and is discouraged by Orthodox rabbinic authorities.”
There were others who also banned it because of comparisons to the Church and its use of flowers.
However, no one who takes flowers to a funeral today does so in imitation of pagans or Christians, but as part of a common cultural expression. We also have the specific Jewish ritual of placing a stone on the grave, but the one does not preclude the other.
Flowers are meaningful for several different reasons: they add colour to a bleak occasion; they remind of the life that those present still do have and should make the most of; they provide mourners a chance to do something at the very moment when they feel most impotent — selecting flowers, taking them along, bending down to put them alongside the grave.
They also give friends of the mourners a way showing they care, a means of expressing deep feelings when words seem inadequate. The advertising slogan once used by Interflora, “Say it with flowers”, brilliantly encapsulates why flowers can be so useful.
Flowers are a perfectly legitimate Jewish option and what is key is for the family to give a clear signal as to whether they are wanted and to what extent: “Yes, that would be lovely or no thanks, it’s not our tradition or we’re just doing flowers from the family, so please make a donation instead to his/her favourite charity.”
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue