Charles Cowling


There’s an interesting article about grieving in the New York Times. The writer describes an accidental discovery of the value of secular shiva.

First, what’s shiva?

Named after the Hebrew word for “seven,” shiva is a weeklong mourning period, dating back to biblical times, in which immediate family members welcome visitors to their home to help fortify the soul of the deceased and comfort the survivors. Though many contemporary Jews shorten the prescribed length, the custom is still widely practiced.

The writer continues:

The “secular shivas” we organized had a number of notable differences that proved crucial to their success. First, we organized them for Jews and non-Jews alike. Second, no prayers or other religious rituals were offered. Third, we held them away from the home of the griever, to reduce the burden. And finally, we offered the grieving party the option of speaking about the deceased, something not customary under Jewish tradition.

The writer lists lessons learned:

*   Don’t wait for the griever to plan.

*   Invite rxmeds hub order cialis super active online only those people that the bereaved person will feel comfortable with.

*   Ask the bereaved person to share a few stories.

*   There is comfort to be taken from a gathering of people, but here’s a caveat:  “Introverts need to grieve, too. For some, a gathering of this kind might be a particular kind of torture.”

The writer concludes:

What I’ve taken away from the experience is a reminder of what I’ve seen often in looking at contemporary religion. Rather than chuck aside time-tested customs in favor of whiz-bang digital solutions, a freshening of those rituals is often more effective. Our “secular shivas” took some advantages of the Internet (e-mail organizing, ordering food online); coupled them with some oft-forgotten benefits of slowing down and reuniting; and created a nondenominational, one-size-doesn’t-fit-all tradition that can be tinkered to fit countless situations.

Like all such traditions, they may not soften the blow of a loss, but they had the unmistakable boon of reaffirming the community itself.


Whole article here

8 thoughts on “Secular shiva

  1. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    Yes, I can see the value of that, but I still think it might lessen the impact in that the visitors take on the ‘running of the house’ for a while…they shoulder the practical burdens.
    Still those who participated in this project obviously derived comfort from it and certainly doing it in a retreat is better than not doing it at all!

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Do you not think that secular (there we go again) shiva might work as well if it were held in a retreat house or similar venue?

    I think I’d be inclined to spend a few days with a few friends at the Franciscan friary at Batcombe – where another friend weaned himself of a heroin addiction. On the other hand, I might just get in the car and head for Sutherland.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    I have always thought that the Jewish custom of sitting Shiva was brilliant. Another example of the many ways in which Judaism seems to be able to seemlessly introduce religion and ritual into everday day life and cater for the psychological requirements of actual human beings.

    While I am sure that ‘sitting Shiva’ would be hugely benefical for many in a secualar context (there is of course, no one size fits all) I am a little puzzled about the idea of holding it away from the home of the bereaved as though it were a service such as might be held in a crematorium. Shiva (the Jewish ritual, not the Hindu god) is a part of the wider Jewish context of mourning periods and rituals which slowly re-integrates the bereaved into ‘normal’ society. Shiva is the first and most intense period of mourning and what it does, above and beyond anything else, is to give someone who has been bereaved a ritually prescribed period where society gives them permission to fall apart. Something that secular western society is very bad at. Mirrors are covered (I suspect that this originally had something to do with departing spirits but the modern rationalisation is that the bereaved are not expected to look at themselves, they have ‘permission’ to look like hell.) The bereaved are not expected to cook for themselves, friends and more distant family are expected to come round with food, do the shopping and so on. It therefore, as Charles says, gives a specific role to firends and less immediate family who often genuinely want to help but don’t feel they can. It also actively encourages people to talk about the deceased which in our culture we can tend to shy away from. I am not sure what use it would be unless centred on the home of the bereaved and extending over a number of days.

    There is an episode of Babylon 5 (I now ‘come out’ as a Sci Fi buff) where the first officer reluctantly sits Shiva for her father, with whom she is very angry. It is a fairly accurate account of the ritual but a brilliant expose of its psychological purpose and benefits for the bereaved. I used to use it with my GCSE classes as part of the death and dying module. (There were some of us out there tackling these issues in the classroom 🙂

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Quite so, GM. In the beginning is the idea. Then there is the adoption of the idea (perhaps) followed by the evolution of the idea.

    ‘Griever engagement strategies’ was intended as a sardonic reflection on the defilement of vocabulary by govt orgs. If the GFG were a quango we’d talk this sort of shite all day long.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Well, nice try….maybe just ‘ritual’ will do. I appreciate that ritual and custom is prescriptive by cultural evolution (or divine instruction, as you please)but in this case, the family and the celebrant working together will prescribe the ritual – until such time that so many people say ‘hey, that’s a lovely way of doing it’ that it becomes widely adopted?

    And if we work to freshen and develop existing ritual elements (processesion, candles, pictures, group singing, group speaking in response to celebrant) rather than sitting down round a table to create “designer ritual” from scratch (eg “if I stand on my head, that will symbolise how the widow feels the world is turned upside down without her old fellow…”) then that adoption process may be easier.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    Do you have a problem with the vocabulary here, GM? Customs, rituals – these are hardwired practices, prescriptive. Not appropriate in the case of customised rituals (an oxmoron).

    What about ‘griever engagement strategies’?

    All right, all right.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    For me it’s all about that last sentence, and ‘reaffirming community’. People close to a bereaved person can feel like lemons. It’s good for them to be able to have things to do which focus on them being able to make a practical difference to the person they want to support.

    Those religious practices designed primarily to promote emotional health rather than devotional engagement have much to offer. They can be adapted to individual circumstance – as you say, GM, freshened. Best of all, they enable community engagement.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    What a valuable final paragraph. Efforts to “freshen” established rituals could indeed be the way forward. And I guess that’s what many of us are trying to do with the classic British 25 minute crematorium funeral. (Step 1 – book a double slot, if funds allow. Step 2 – fill the time with a variety of good ideas, as did the family I visited today.)

    Surely what many of us want is “a nondenominational, one-size-doesn’t-fit-all tradition that can be tinkered to fit countless situations.”

    Charles Cowling

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