What is proper or expected with respect to co-workers and employees attending a funeral? If I work for a Jewish manager but did not know the family and deceased relative (parent), should I attend to show respect for the living?
To answer this question, I would like to divide the issues into two categories: responsibilities to the deceased and responsibilities to the living.
Insofar as paying respects to the deceased, it used to be that everyone in a town went to everyone’s funeral (Shulḥan Arukh YD 361). However, this was the rule for small village communities. Nowadays, one would only be required to attend a funeral if not attending would be an embarrassment to the deceased. Usually, this would be because one is such a close friend or relative that he or she would be expected. It could also be because so few people in general are attending the funeral that everyone who can attend should; sparse attendance may imply that the deceased was not important or well-liked.
Since you did not know the deceased, assuming you have no reason to believe that the funeral will be drastically under-attended – and it is not your responsibility to ask, as this is unusual – you do not need to attend the funeral to honor the deceased.
Insofar as honoring the living, this can be done in a number of ways. Although certainly your friend or co-worker will appreciate your showing up to his or her loved-one’s funeral, this is generally not expected. Additionally, mourners are often emotionally preoccupied during funerals, as they should be, and the appearance of acquaintances is a secondary or tertiary issue in their minds, if they notice it at all.
The main way in Jewish law and practice to show sympathy and solidarity with the mourner is during the shiva period (Shulḥan Arukh YD 376). During this period, the mourner sits in his or her house and receives comfort from visitors. If your friend or co-worker will be sitting shiva, and you feel that it would not be awkward or inappropriate to make a shiva-call, this would be my first suggestion. Shiva is a time for mourners to express their feelings about their loved one or about their loss or other related subjects on their mind.
If the person will not be sitting shiva, I would even suggest that you offer to sit with them, perhaps over a cup of coffee, and talk, mimicking the shiva experience in some way and allowing them to reflect on their lost loved one. However, if you feel that this would be awkward or inappropriate, or somehow not in keeping with the nature of your relationship with this person, then I would suggest either offering them your condolences with a card, or an email, or even a small charitable donation in the deceased’s honor.
In the Jewish tradition, attending a funeral fulfills two Mitzvot- two sacred responsibilities.
1. Kavod Ha-Met- "honoring the deceased." Having a larger crowd at a funeral is a way of honoring the deceased, even if those present did not know him or her. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, (Shulchan Aruch, YD 361) one is exempt from other sacred tasks in order to participate a funeral. Bystanders who see a funeral procession passing by must join in for at least a few steps. If one did not know the deceased, the eulogies provide an opportunity to learn more about him or her.
2. Nichum Avelim- "comforting the mourners." Most mourners are comforted to know that people have come to support them at a time of loss.
Of course, saying that it would be positive to do so is not the same thing as saying that one "must"- the tradition also indicates that one need not attend a funeral if there are others who will be attending and will make sure that the deceased is properly tended to. As to whether there is a social obligation or expectation, that would depend on the nature of your relationship with the family of the deceased. I suppose we could turn the question around. If, God forbid, you suffered a loss in your own family, how would you feel about having people attend the funeral who came out of respect for you, even though they did not know the deceased?
Another important Jewish tradition that may be helpful as you comfort your boss/co-worker is that of Shiva. The mourners gather for a period of time (traditionally a week) following the funeral to receive visitors in their home or the home of the deceased. Typically religious services are part of the shiva, but there is also time for conversation and reflection. Attending the shiva is therefore an opportunity for visitors to offer condolences in a more personal way than is possible at the cemetery. If the mourners are "sitting shiva," it would be very appropriate for you to arrange to visit during that time.
I would echo the response of Rabbis Heller and Farber. The two concerns at the time of a death are to honor the deceased and to comfort the mourners. The key question concerns where you have responsibility.
Since you did not know the deceased I would agree with my colleagues that you do not have a responsibility to attend the funeral. You do, however, have a relationship with your manager who is mourning the loss of his father and you can offer consolation. As my colleagues noted you have an option of offering that comfort either at the funeral or at the shiva, and I agree that the shiva might offer a more comfortable and more effective setting for you.
I would add only one brief note on the etiquette of attending shiva. The tradition suggests that a shiva visitor simply make their presence known and allow the mourner to begin the conversation. This avoids some awkward attempts to find the right tone; the mourner will serve as your guide to what conversation is most comforting to him or her.
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