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June 13, 2011
My father, may his memory be a blessing, died and was buried in Mono County, California, the county with the lowest population per square mile in the state, and, it seems, the fewest Jews. Because there are no synagogues in the area, I knew there would be no rabbi available to conduct his funeral. As a result, I assumed there would be no graveside ceremony. But then my sister, who is not religious, asked, "At Dad's burial, would you be willing to say a few prayers or something?"
I told her I would, and then was left wondering what prayers would be appropriate. I'm Jewish, and a religious person. My father was Jewish, but wasn't religious. He and my mother divorced when my sister and I were kids, and for the last 20-something years of his life he was married to a non-practicing Catholic. My husband, my sister and her family are not religious.
How was I going to come up with something that would be meaningful to everyone present, without upsetting anyone? I didn't want to leave out God entirely, but I didn't want the language to be so God-centered that it would alienate my sister and her family. I wanted to honor the Jewish tradition I inherited from my father, but I didn't want to include so much Hebrew that nobody else would know what was going on. In particular, I wanted to include something that would be familiar and comforting to my father's widow, as well as to my sister.
Fortunately, when I asked my rabbi for advice, he loaned me a copy of his rabbi's handbook, which is published by the Union of Reform Judaism and used by Reform rabbis for various life cycle events, such as funerals, weddings, divorces, etc. From the section on funerals, I chose three readings, all of which are also widely available on the internet and elsewhere, and planned for each one to be read by a different participant.
The first, Psalm 23, is found in both Hebrew and Christian bibles. It is the psalm that contains the phrase, "…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," and it is familiar to many people as a prayer used at funerals, both real and in TV shows and movies.
Although Psalm 23 references God a fair amount, the ideas it conveys are comforting, and because it would be familiar to all the participants as a thing that is commonly said at funerals, I thought it would serve both as a comfort and as a message that this is a real, actual burial taking place here.
The second reading I chose was Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. This selection is also widely familiar to Americans, especially those of my generation, because it was set to music by Pete Seeger and popularized by The Byrds in the ‘60s as the song "Turn, Turn, Turn." It is the one that says, "To everything there is a season…and a time to every purpose under heaven."
I chose Ecclesiastes because, again, I thought its familiarity and message would provide some comfort. It also has the advantage of not using the word "God," so anyone present who doesn't believe in God would, I hoped, be able to listen to it without having questions about God get in their way.
For the third reading I chose a poem called "Life is a Journey" by Alvin Fine. Although I suspect nobody else present was familiar with this poem, I thought they would appreciate it because it contains a lovely message describing life's journey, and, aside from the last line, it is not in the least bit religious.
For myself and my father, I wanted to include the Mourner's Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer that is traditionally said at the burial of a Jewish person, and at other proscribed times after his or her death. To me, it simply would not have been a proper burial for a Jewish person without the Mourner's Kaddish, but I was presented with a problem.
Because Jewish mourners are not supposed to be alone in our time of grief, this prayer is only supposed to be said in the presence of ten Jews, yet I was the only Jewish person who was going to be at the funeral. Fortunately, my rabbi helped me to plan ahead, and on the day of the burial a group of Jewish people were gathered in his office. They said the prayer with me over the phone. It may not have been exactly traditional, but it meant the world to me to be able to say it with them.
We also observed the Jewish tradition of watching as the casket was lowered into the grave, and then my father's widow, my sister and I each took a handful of dirt and tossed it onto my father's casket. It is a hard thing to do, but I agree with the Jewish wisdom that says the first bits of dirt to fall on the casket should not be thrown on by a stranger. The sound of the dirt hitting the coffin is also an effective way of driving home the reality of our collective loss.
Afterward, we washed our hands, and my father's widow, who originally had not intended for there to be any ceremony at all, thanked me for leading the service. She said she appreciated its honesty.
I would not recommend that anyone lead the funeral of a close friend or relative, let alone for their own father. At such a time, a mourner should be free to mourn. However, if you do find yourself in a situation in which you need to lead a funeral service attended by people of various religions, I would recommend developing your own version of the above formula, since it worked so well for us.
One thing you might want to add between readings is an opportunity for one or more person to make a eulogy, or to just talk informally about the person who has died. I would also recommend the book Talking to God by Naomi Levy for additional readings. The trick is to know your audience, to try to strike a balance, taking into consideration what is meaningful, familiar and comforting, without using language that may make people uneasy.