My mother-in-law Grete died last year after a fall down her front stairs. It was a sudden death, and sad for the family. She was the matriarch, still alert at age 87, with a wonderful sense of humor and deep love for all of us. It was through her example that, as a young mother, I saw religion could be a part of one's daily life. Even when she came to visit us in Boston she went to church. Through her example I developed a religious life and involvement in my faith, Judaism. We drove up to Montreal for the funeral. Since Grete was a devout Catholic, a past president of the Women's League of her church, and a dedicated driver for Meals-On-Wheels, I was not surprised that her pastor, Father Fitz, had come in from out of town to officiate at the funeral. I had met him at many family dinners, and we had a wonderful rapport. The last time I had seen him was just a few months earlier, across the dinner table at Grete's birthday. We had joked (he's got a great sense of humor and loves to laugh) and talked about Judaism and Christianity (we were the only two people at the table who liked to talk about that "stuff").
My husband and his sister Beate and brother Harald, were very surprised, though, that there would be five other priests also participating in the funeral service. While this would have been very unusual for just an ordinary congregant, they were all past priests of the parish, all with strong ties to my mother-in-law. She was that kind of kind woman.
Each of the priests spoke of Grete's many contributions to the life of the congregation. The choir, of which she had been a part for many years, sang her favorite songs. My Jewish daughter read a passage from the Old Testament, while another grandchild read from the New Testament, and yet another spoke on behalf of all the seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Having all these people participate made the funeral mass a very moving experience, with a certain air of joy that was alien to me. The service was a celebration of Grete's life and an acknowledgment that she was now with God, a much better place to be.
I am from the Jewish tradition, which looks at death so differently that I was shocked, yet comforted, by all the smiling faces. The closest I had ever been to something like this was when a young man of our congregation died suddenly. Our rabbi met with all the youths and their parents before the funeral service, and we had a chance to talk about Robin. Most clearly I remember Rabbi Zecher with a beautiful smile, while tears streamed down her face! The picture has stayed with me all these years as a symbol of holding both life and death in the same moment--the joy of life, the pain of loss, the inevitability of both.
The Jewish tradition looks at death as a time of tension. Someone must stay with the body until the person is buried because the soul might be hovering, and the body must be respected. After burial, we rend our clothes, literally. We observe shiva--seven days of mourning. We sit on hard benches and cover the mirrors so that we think only of the person who has died and not ourselves. The mourners don't leave the house for seven days. Then there are another thirty days, shloshim, of intermediate mourning, when the mourners begin to come back to the world. This is followed by a full year of saying Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, twice daily. Even in liberal Judaism, this custom is followed by many people. At the end of a year, the tombstone is placed in a ceremony marked by the family and friends.
I was 23 when my father died. Though the family sat shiva, it was only for two nights instead of the traditional six. We were not practicing Jews--never went to temple, never celebrated Shabbat--the Sabbath--or any other holy days or holidays. When I went back to work, I remember how stunned I was that people were smiling and chatting, that life was going on as if nothing had changed. For me, the world had become a sad and scary place. Now, though, I have learned the traditions of Judaism and experienced the solace that can be attained by observing shiva, and shloshim, and saying Kaddish every day for a full year. It eases the transition from loss to life.
When we got back to Boston after Grete's funeral, there was a note from the clergy of our temple expressing their condolences and the information that her name would be read at Kaddish. We were surprised by this--nevertheless, my husband, my daughter, and I went to temple on Friday night to say Kaddish. The rabbi read the list of people who had died during that week, and there she was, "Grete Mueller, mother of Guntram." And there was my atheist husband standing up to say Kaddish for his Catholic mother in a Jewish temple. And he was deeply comforted.
It's been an interesting journey, this mixing of traditions. Sometimes I want to say "Not your way, my way", because my way is more comfortable. The known versus the unknown. Yet the experience of sharing our traditions at this most powerful moment has helped me see how blessed we are to be able to intertwine our different beliefs into one strand that encompasses our whole family.