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One of the most important Jewish obligations and opportunities is burying the dead. I understand how you might think that the “obligation” part of this statement makes sense and probably question the “opportunity” aspect. In fact, I think the opportunity to bury our dead is of greater significance than that of the obligation. In my experience, funerals are the one life-cycle event that offers the greatest chance for people to show up in their truest form. Our defenses are low and the gift of compassion is at its highest level when we are in mourning. In joyful life-cycle events we often attempt to mask the sorrows in life, while at funerals and when visiting mourners we often drop the pretense and allow all of life-- the sorrowful and joyful moments--to be a part of our relationships. And we are often more likely to ask about each other’s emotions and traditions and to accept and be respectful of each other at sorrowful times than at joyful occasions. Herein lies the opportunity. The one caveat however: the vulnerability of people around death is greater than at other times. Those of us who serve at these times must honor that vulnerability and not impose our desires for particular ritual behavior on the family. Rather we are called upon to be the resource of ritual knowledge we are and the compassionate representatives of the best of humanity we can be. In light of these two roles, educator and compassionate human being, here are some observations I have made in working with interfaith couples around death.
I have found that Jewish ritual is a powerful addition to any funeral. I believe strongly that we offer help to people approaching their own deaths and to subsequent mourners. Jewish ritual is based on both the emotional needs of human beings and on the realities of death and loss. I have also experienced rituals from other religious traditions that offer the same gifts and have welcomed them into funerals. Any ritual that supports mourners in their mourning and doesn’t mask the fact of loss can be appropriate additions to interfaith funerals, as can the people, both clergy and lay, who offer them. And while I have witnessed and participated in many such ceremonies, one stands clearly in my mind.
Several years ago, I buried a young college student who had a Jewish father and Christian mother. He was raised with a connection to both traditions and attended church with his family. When he arrived at college, he began to attend synagogue with us and brought a few of his college friends each week he attended. I was never really sure whether he began coming to temple before or after his cancer diagnosis, but welcomed his youthfulness and enthusiasm for learning and participation in the service. His friends of varying faith traditions were also a welcome addition to our community. As he came closer to death, I visited him at home and spent time with his family as well. His preparation for death was informed by both of his family’s religious traditions and he was internally well supported for this part of life’s journey. I saw in him a great sense of meaning in his life and openness to both his fear and comfort with death. He died at home and his funeral was held at his family’s church. I was welcomed as an equal part of this ceremony and felt honored to be included.
The ceremony was longer than I am used to and yet I felt the need of the community to not be on a tight schedule. The minister allowed for a great amount of participation from his friends, and this seemed holy and wholely appropriate for the death of a young man who meant so much to so many. He was laid out in a simple closed casket as is customary in Jewish tradition. The prayers and psalms, most of which are common to both traditions, were brief, and the stories, long and full of love. Jewish tradition calls for funerals to be brief so that mourning can begin after a quick burial. This service was long and honored all those present along with the deceased in a way that felt very Jewish, if there is such a thing, and at the same time was true to their Christian heritage as well. There were no platitudes spoken, only gifts of words and music from the hearts of mourners. The minister and I kept our remarks brief and painfully true about the loss of young life and the meaning he had only begun to create.
From the church we drove, in a long processional, to the cemetery for burial. Arriving at the grave, I was asked to be “in charge,” as the family wanted the graveside ceremony to reflect the Jewish heritage they had embraced. Again with psalms and prayers we lowered his casket into the ground and in true Jewish style, each of the mourners shoveled earth on the grave. This ritual is meant to provide closure around the loss of the physical person while opening up our ability to move him into our hearts and minds for the rest of our lives. After the family helped bury their own, the community continued the process, unfamiliar to many present. The act of burial is a great connecter to the realness and practicality of life and death. At the same time it allows us to help a soul move on in a ritual that is pure gift on our part: There is no “thank you” in return for the offer of our souls and the action we are taking to bury the dead. From the grave we followed his parents back to their home.
At the house, the mood changed from deep sorrow to tempered joy and celebration of his life. The food was plentiful and provided by neighbors and friends. His mother was focused on serving others and was allowed this choice of action as is customary in Jewish tradition. As is appropriate, the mourners set the tone of their own mourning. It would be soon enough that she would settle into the sadness of her heart, as did his father. It was the continued comfort of friends and neighbors that eased them through the next days and weeks of their grieving. In their own way, they sat shiva (the seven day period of mourning following burial) for their son.
When the time came, the parents drove to our congregation and were met by his college friends for Shabbat services. At their request we added their son’s name to our Kaddish list (a list of names whose anniversary of death are that week or their death occurred within the last eleven months) and read it for the next eleven months and continue to read his name at Yartzheit (the anniversary of his death) every year. The month between the eleven months following burial and the first Yartzheit allows for a break in the ritual from a daily cycle of prayer to a yearly one. From time to time, his family makes the long journey to our community to hear his name and gain support from those of us who knew him and from the others present to their grief.
On occasions such as the funeral of this young man, I have witnessed some of the most powerful moments in the lives of members of my congregation. At these times, extraordinary bonding can occur between clergy and congregation. This bonding is beneficial to both clergy and congregation, and for this reason I suggest that, as with any religious ceremony, people seek out and make connections with spiritual leaders and communities well before they are needed at the end of life. Even if one doesn’t visit again until the time arrives, the relationship is not created in crisis mode. If that is all that is possible however, to meet in the moment of need, then I suggest open and honest communication about expectations and questions, whether practical or spiritual in nature, so that the greatest connection can be made. And before any action is taken or contacts made, one should ponder her or his own beliefs and desires in ritual and prayer, asking questions of family and friends who have “been there” before. Any preparation made prior to a given event or crisis will mitigate the strain at the time when strength and meaning-making are most important.