Tag Archives: mourning rituals

Shaving Head after Father’s Death

Background provided by MN: MN is an individual who grew up in the Maharashtra state of India, where they learned 4 languages including Sanskrit. They recently moved to America for further education. This is a practice of MN’s specific culture, Hindu Brahman.

Context: As we talked about certain funeral proceedings, MN shared this information about the mourning period. This piece was collected in the early morning at the university as we were conversing about different cultural practices.

Main Piece Transcription of interview (contains the context of particular performance and additional background information): 

MN: “And also …like  if your father dies, the eldest son … who’s a boy … they cut their hair. Not completely … no actually … completely. If the mother dies, it’s the second son. 

Me: “What if you don’t have a second son?”

MN: “ mmmm … if you have a second son.” 

Me: “So let’s say you only have one son.”

MN: “The eldest son can choose to. They have a choice. It’s not compulsory, if you’re religious then you do it. Like … when my grandfather passed away, my uncle did it. It’s all a choice.” 

Analysis: This particular Hindu ritual is very interesting because it seems like a very spiritual and religious tradition. MN emphasizes two important aspects of this tradition: choice and religion. The son is not obligated to complete this ritual but is given a choice to perform it. In addition, the son can choose to perform this ritual based on his religious beliefs. The completion of this particular ritual is dependent on the son. Sons are not forced to complete this tradition, which emphasizes how it changes 

Another interesting aspect of this traditional ritual is the birth order of the performer. The eldest son is often seen as a great authority figure while the second eldest is perceived as a lower authority figure. This is telling of a patriarchal society that places higher importance on male heirs and their duties. The eldest son is seen as an authority figure, which is similar to how fathers are considered to be head of the household. After the father dies, the eldest son can choose to shave his head to commemorate his late father. Correspondingly, the second son can also shave his head to honor the death of his mother. The second son can be considered to be the support for the first son, much like mothers support their husbands. This ritual is only a portion of the funeral rituals that are performed by grieving loved ones, which reflects Indian values of family and tradition.


LG: “In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies, you are supposed to make a tear in your clothing to show that you’re in mourning. And the reason for that is, I guess, or the reason that tradition evolved is because people used to tear their skin, they were so anguished they would pull their hair out. Jews are not supposed to do that. It’s called Keriyah, you rip your clothes to show you’re in mourning.

[Jews are] not supposed to pierce or tattoo because your body belongs to God, so you’re not supposed to make marks on it or tears at it.”


The informant is my mother. She is a 57-year-old woman of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry who was born in California and currently lives in New York City. Her father was a German refugee who escaped Nazi persecution as a child and conveyed to his children the value of carrying on Jewish beliefs and traditions. She learned about this practice in the Torah study group she takes with her rabbi.

         She learned that this tradition was derived from a biblical story, Leviticus 10:1-7, in which the sons of Aaron light a fire in the temple to honor God despite His commands not to do so. As punishment, God kills Aaron’s sons. However, he also punishes Aaron by inhibiting him from mourning practices, which included tearing one’s clothing. LG said that because Aaron was specifically prevented from mourning because he dishonored God, people interpreted that they should tear their clothes as to preserve the meaning of God’s punishment.


There are many Jewish cultural traditions which take place when someone is mourning. These practices rely heavily on members of the community caring for the person who lost someone. I think that Keriyah is a visual symbol of mourning that indicates a person’s desire for support.

Moreover, grief is a visceral experience and confronting the futility of words in the face of it can lead people to hurt themselves as a way to communicate or express their agony. Tearing one’s clothes is a physical manifestation of grief that can substitute harming one’s body, which is sinful according to Jewish belief because one’s body belongs to God. However, I think that the practice is not merely grounded in piety, but also a practical way to care for the mourning, to make sure they don’t physically harm themselves. 

You Can’t Give Away a Dead Person’s Shoes

Main piece: When someone dies, after the mourning period is over and it’s appropriate to give the clothes away that can still be worn, and you can give them to whoever you want – the recipient can take everything. Not the shoes. You don’t wear a dead person’s shoes. 

Background: My informant is a seventy-nine year old Jewish woman living in Baltimore, Maryland. She describes herself as a follower of “bubbe-meises” (Yiddish), translated to “grandmother’s fables”, or a more serious version of old wive’s tales that are often accompanied by superstitions. 

Context: A previous informant was discussing a traditional Jewish practice of washing your hands after a funeral. A discussion ensued about Jewish funeral rites and traditions, and my informant mentioned this one. My informant learned that from her mother, and takes the practice incredibly seriously, though it is not a situation she personally has faced. However, she does recall her mother refusing to offer her father’s shoes to family friends after his passing. 

Analysis: My informant had no idea why this practice existed, nor is there any talmudic or religious reason connected to or behind this. It is possible that unlike shirts or pants, shoes cannot be washed, and so the person who used to inhabit them can never fully be removed from the shoes. It’s also possible that, pre-industrialization, a person only owned one pair of shoes, and therefore had a higher sentimental value/significance to the person. The shoes would also be tailor made for that individual, so it is possible that the family just couldn’t give away the person’s shoes, because they wouldn’t fit anybody else.