Ted became terminally ill approximately a year prior to his son Kevin’s Bar Mitzvah. Nonetheless, either Elaine or Ted, if he was well enough, would drive Kevin to my office for his weekly lessons throughout that devastating period of illness and chemotherapy. Life, most certainly, was going to go on for the Thomson family.
Several weeks prior to Ted’s death, he asked me to visit him at home. He explained that while he was not Jewish, he hoped that I, his family’s cantor for a number of years, would officiate at his inevitable funeral. Ted appreciated the Jewish beliefs and customs of his family and felt comforted by our relationship over the years. I had officiated at his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah and regularly saw the entire family in the synagogue. We went on to discuss his life, his values and his modest hopes.
My decision to honor Ted’s wishes came of two very simple considerations: namely his request and the needs of his interfaith family. Could I possibly have referred him to another clergyman because my prayers were reserved for members of my tribe? Was he in some way not worthy of the same ancient psalms and loving tributes? Both Reform Jewish practice and my own conscience dictated our course.
When the fateful day did arrive, I gathered the entire family in the Thomson home to listen to them, comfort them and apprise them of Jewish customs relating to death and mourning. As I explained, Jewish traditions of mourning were at least as psychological as they were religious. They served to honor the deceased but were mostly concentrated on steadying the falling who survived. The tradition recognized the state in which they found themselves--desperate, lost, angry, or simply empty. Therefore, as a community, our commitment was to offer them simple quiet comfort. While Jewish custom taught that the mourners should be allowed their silence without needless conversing, it also recognized the fact that in the midst of caring family and friends, the grieving would find listening ears and embracing arms. In me, they could expect respectful service.
Ted’s funeral service and burial took place in a non-denominational cemetery. The site was chosen because of its beauty and religious neutrality. The chapel was filled to capacity. Family members, both Jewish and Christian, paid loving tribute in both eulogy and prayer to a man who had so enriched their world. We took comfort in the words of psalms that reminded us of a God who was with every one of us in our grief. The experience led us to some reconciliation with our own mortality and with the recognition of the gifts that were ours in our life and that of loved ones. We spent some moments in silence, allowing prayers and memories their time to form in our individual minds and hearts. In Hebrew chant and English word, we commended Ted to his Creator asking that he “be bound up in the bond of everlasting life” with the memorial prayer, “Eil Male Rachamim--God Who is Full of Compassion.”
After the chapel service, we gathered at the gravesite. There we faced the bleak reality of the permanence of Ted’s passing. Each of us joined the family in a final mitzvah, or righteous deed, on Ted’s behalf. Every individual laid shovelfuls of soil on the casket. Thus it was not a clergyman who laid Ted to rest, but rather everyone among us. We recited the Kaddish prayer in recognition of the unknowable Source of all of our experiences--even those which were utterly incomprehensible.
According to Jewish law, the period of mourning begins not with death, but rather upon burial. For several days after Ted’s funeral, we observed the Jewish custom of shiva, gathering in his home to feed and comfort his wife and children and to share memories with one another. Some of these anecdotes evoked tears and others brought on howls of laughter. And so, the loving tribute and early healing continued. For that week, a candle burned continuously in the Thomson home. Long after its light would expire, the man remembered would live in the hearts of those he touched in his forty-four years of life.
A number of weeks after Ted’s burial, the grieving community gathered again--this time for an event of a different nature. Wearing his father’s suit, Kevin rose to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah. Kevin had insisted that it should not be postponed.
The word interfaith had little bearing on the course of those events. The most important word was family. It was that which dictated most every choice.