Exploring Prayers For The Dead

Posted on November 7, 2017 by Martin Oaks under Cremation, Resources
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As we have witnessed many times here at Martin Oaks, death is both a personal and communal event. As part of the committed community, most religious beliefs involve the reciting of prayers for the deceased. These prayers go back to time immemorial: they involve a number of different traditions/liturgies which vary greatly.

burial services in Martin Oaks

For example, one of the oldest and most revered prayers is Kaddish. It is part of the Jewish funeral rights and is a hymn of praises to God.

Kaddish, or “Mourners Kaddish,” can be said at graveside services as well as other memorial locations.

Essentially, those who say Kaddish are demonstrating that, in spite of a loss, they still praise God.

“El Malei Rachamim,” while not known to the general public as well as Kaddish, is the actual Jewish prayer for the dead. Not only is it a prayer for those who have passed, but it is also a prayer for the rest of those left behind – “May you who are the source of mercy shelter them beneath your wings… bind their wings among the living that they may rest in peace.” In fact, there is no mention of death in Kaddish – instead it affirms the steadfast faith of the mourners.

So what are the healing properties of this prayer when there has been an actual death? At a time of loss, sometimes people have an inclination to reject, question, or diminish God. Kaddish is a tradition that calls on the mourner to praise God, as well as to lead others in that praise. This type of emotional catharsis in a community can have therapeutic effects – it binds the mourner to the both the past and the present.

Kaddish can also be said by those close to the deceased during various prayer moments in their lives: in prayer groups, at Sabbath and other religious services, whenever it is appropriate. Some feel that this simple remembrance brings them closer to loved ones who have passed. As author Diana Cole notes, in her book, — “After great pain, a new life emerges.”

Kaddish is not a random assortment of prayers to God, it has specific spiritual references that contain deeper significance.

The oldest version of Kaddish dates back to the 1st century and is written in Aramaic (some have described it as an Aramaic poem). It is a strikingly beautiful prayer which begins (in English): “May His great name be exalted and sanctified in the world which He created according to His will…May He who makes peace in His high place grant peace upon us…”

Traditions and customs for the recitation of Kaddish are also quite variable. In certain synagogues, only mourners stand and chant the Kaddish together; in other synagogues, one mourner is chosen to lead the prayers on behalf of the rest; in other congregations, all stand and pray together; some close the prayer with a song.

Versions of Kaddish have shown up in literature, music, and even film. It is movingly recited on screen in films as different as “Yentl,” “Schindler’s List,” and even “Rocky III.” The musical “Rent,” as well as the play “Angels in America,” both feature it.

A few more notes on “El Malei Rachamim.” Much like Kaddish, it is usually recited during the burial service at the grave, but it can also be used in memorial services throughout the year. These services can include: the unveiling of the tombstone; during major Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur; and at special services which include the Yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death).

The prayer has a fixed structure that includes the deceased’s name.

“God, full of mercy, who dwells above give rest on the wings of the Divine Presence.”

In future blogs we will explore other prayers for the dead, other religious traditions that aid us in times of mourning.

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