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Grieving in a Different Tradition

When I heard that my husband's brother-in-law Jan had died peacefully in his sleep on Saturday morning, I said I'd pack my bags and we could leave right away. My husband's family is in Montreal; we're about a six hour drive away, in a Boston suburb.

My husband, Guntram, looked at me as if he were confused.

"What?" I said.

"Let's wait to see when the funeral will be before we go up there."

Jan Mueller
Edie's brother-in-law, Jan.

His words stopped me in my tracks. When his mother died, we drove right up, but I should know after 32 years in this mixed marriage--me a committed Reform Jew, my husband a committed atheist from a devoutly Catholic family--that things are rarely clear; I should have expected a difference in our traditions of mourning. I'm used to the Jewish way: everyone drop what you're doing and gather the troops to comfort the family and protect them from the outside world. We don't leave the body alone. Traditional Jews have hevrah kedishah--a group of congregants who bathe the body and prepare it for burial; they make sure someone is with the body at all times, often saying psalms; and every effort is made to bury the body within 24 hours. It goes straight from funeral home to funeral to burial site, where the mourners help shovel the earth over the coffin. No one leaves until the job is done and the earth once again smooth.

My husband had to work hard to calm me down. I love Jan--he's been an intimate part of my life for more than three decades. We're a close family, and all of us were surprised and very saddened by his death. I felt a strong need to be with him, to know that someone is taking care of him. Guntram kept saying his sister would rather be alone and that we'd only be a bother. I said we wouldn't be a bother! We'd be there to help. He said his brother wasn't even coming in from Florida until the end of his stay there, the following weekend.

Well, of course I listened to him; it's his family and I respect their traditions. Though Jan died on Saturday, we didn't drive up to Montreal until Tuesday. On Wednesday, Jan's brothers flew in from Switzerland, my daughter drove up from Boston, a nephew from New Jersey. We did gather around the family and offer our love and support. And our tears accompanied the coffin through its journey from funeral parlor to church. The service, on a Thursday, was lovely, very spiritual and comforting.

Though delayed, I was able to do things for my sister-in-law, Beate. I helped figure out the cars and how to get people from here to there and back again. And I was there for my nieces and nephew, to make breakfast, wash dishes, give a good strong hug and listen when they wanted to talk. All the action helped me keep grief at bay, or absorb it with less pain.

Yet the image I am left with is standing on the steps of the church with the family watching the hearse drive away, with the coffin. His brothers were at the edge of the stairs and did not take their eyes from the hearse even after it turned the corner. Now, I'm in my 60s and should (and do!) know better, but I felt a bit of fear: Where would the body go? Would the coffin be handled with love once the loved ones were left behind? Would we be able to find him again?

The Jewish tradition gives a mystical quality to the body: the death does not begin to be resolved until the body is in the ground and buried in its shroud, with no coffin, so that it can return to the earth from whence it came. Until that moment when the body is buried and the ground over it is filled, the spirit does not rest. The work of the hevrah kedishah is the epitome of holiness, treating the deceased with respect and loving kindness.

Another significant difference is the funeral itself. The service for Jan included a eulogy written and read by his son and readings from the Bible by his two daughters. The priest spoke of Jan's life, in the midst of a Catholic mass. The church was filled with friends; lots of tears were shed. Afterwards, there was coffee and cake in the church social hall, followed by a gathering at Beate's home for the family and closest friends. We had some food and wine, toasted Jan and reminisced. At one point, 6-year-old Juliana, his granddaughter, quietly wanted to know why, if Opa just died, were we having a party?

The ceremonies and traditions were vastly different from mine and took me way out of my comfort zone, yet I was comforted, for though the traditions are different, in the end, they are both a celebration of the person's life. We were able to dwell in the memories of Jan's life, and place them in our hearts.

Edie Mueller

Edie Mueller has retired from teaching Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. To fill her free time, she has worked with the clergy of Temple Israel, Boston, to create new liturgy and services for the Days of Awe. She has also colored a pink streak in her white hair, and begun making jewelry under the name All That Glitters.

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