Perhaps nobody is as synonymous with the word respect as Aretha Franklin. It is a sad irony that many see her as the victim of a serious lack of it after her recent passing.
Madonna aimed to pay tribute to Franklin at the MTV Video Music Awards, but it’s safe to say many thought she had missed the mark in a speech more about herself.
I don’t envy Madonna’s task. Showing respect to the dead is hard enough, never mind someone of such stature and on such a public stage.
What does our tradition teach us about showing our respect in the right way? Kavod ha-met, respect for the dead, is a value our Jewish tradition takes incredibly seriously. Our customs are meticulous and take every possible step to give dignity to the person who has departed.
Traditionally, a sign of respect is never to leave the body alone at this time, ensuring instead there is someone at their side on this final journey.
The mourners do not eat, drink or carry out commandments while in the presence of the deceased, because it would be unkind to do things the deceased can no longer do.
These are extraordinary lengths to go to, but only emphasise the importance we place on giving of ourselves to show respect for another.
This value comes through even more with the hesped, the eulogy. The word itself comes from the concept of praising the person and their qualities.
What is particularly noteworthy is how the eulogy is considered for the benefit of the deceased, not of the living.
If a person has declared he or she doesn’t want a eulogy, that is to be respected, because it isn’t for us. We pay respect not for our benefit, but for that of the deceased.
These traditions all point in one direction, that paying respect is about us giving of ourselves and is intended to place the person we are remembering at the centre.
This is why Madonna’s effort caused such upset. The Jewish tradition teaches us that these initial moments after bereavement aren’t about us – there will be time for that later in the process.
Instead, we are supposed to give one last time to the one we loved, and give a little respect.
- Laura Janner-Klausner is Reform Judaism’s senior rabbi