Apr 10, 2011

A Jewish Funeral Experience

It's been around 13 years since I attended a funeral. At least, that's the last one I remember. It was my Uncle David, who wasn't really my Uncle David. I wrote a poem about it in college, recollecting the man who was more of a grandfather figure to me than anything else. Uncle David was my father's step-mother's family, distant, but oh-so-close to my father and to us kids. From the poem, "Uncle David Stole My Nose" ...

When I think about the funeral,
I remember looking into the casket
and seeing Uncle David’s face.
I remember, at that awkward age between
childhood and becoming a young woman,
wondering why he wasn’t smiling.
I remember telling my father, as we
left the burial site after crying and hugging
and holding relatives close, that Uncle
David’s lips should have been curved up.
Smiling as he always was.
Because that’s how everyone knew him,
that’s how I knew him,
when he was alive. ... 
I’ve try to forget the funeral and the burial,
while trying to keep Uncle David as
he was the last time I saw him before
he looked so sad in that big black box.
But I continue to recall driving past the Big Boy
where we’d eat with Uncle David every
now and then when we visited.
I remember crying and thinking about how
empty my dad was, because he’d
lost a father figure. But I know I cried
mostly because I’d lost a
Grandfather, and my nose would stay put
and I realized I was no longer
a child.
That funeral took place during a bizarre weekend where there was a wedding and a funeral. Emotional ups and downs were extreme. But this is my memory of funerals -- Christian funerals. 

Until this past week, I had not been to a Jewish funeral. I've written about paying shiva calls and the difficulty of really coming to terms with that tradition, but nothing could have prepared me for this week. I was, in plain words, an emotional wreck graveside. 

At my Uncle's funeral, it began with service at the funeral chapel, there were Bible verses read, the mood was depressing and morose, and seeing my dead uncle in the box put a forever-image in my head. We all took off to the graveside service afterward, where, everyone, dressed in black, huddled around the plot that had been carved out. The beautiful casket was held on props while words were said, words from the Bible were read, and then we departed. Only after that was the casket lowered -- we didn't watch the casket go down. We left knowing that he was still floating somewhere above the service. 

At Roszi's funeral (I blogged about her passing here) -- as I assume is true at all Jewish funerals -- the casket was lowered simply in its wooden-box form into the space in the ground. A rabbi related Roszi's life to those of us huddled under umbrellas in the cold rain, and then, then the men took a shovel and heaved dirt onto the wooden casket. 

Thump. Thump. Thump. 

And I lost it. I don't know why, but my tears just streamed -- and as I write this, my eyes are welling ... and I just don't know why. The sound of dirt -- dirt to dirt -- hitting a simple wooden casket was something I hadn't expected. Something that, to be honest, would never have happened at a funeral back home, back in my old life. The sounds ruptured something deep within me, emotions for a woman who I had barely known and who had not known me at all. 

"How many times did you even meet Roszi?" my husband asked after the funeral. 

I suppose that this is the purpose of such a visceral display of Jewish burial. It is participatory, permanent, and real. In a way, I suppose it seals the truth and the reality of what has happened. As people started to walk away, people were chattering and smiling and everyone except for the immediate family and I seemed to be unshaken by the events. 

I started to wonder: Have I become a softy? Overemotional? Or was it simply my neshama crying out for the loss of a soul so tortured for absolutely no reason.


Emily said...

I experienced my first Jewish funeral last year and had the same sort of reaction. The woman was from my shul and we weren't terribly close but we had been in a class together and had spent a few holidays together. I wasn't prepared for how much I'd be affected by the funeral and the grief. I think that's something special that the 'thud' of the dirt hitting the casket does for us - it's almost like a signal for us to really remember in a visceral way that we're all going back to the same place.

Sounds like Roszi was a special person - thank you for sharing her story. May her memory be for a blessing and may heaven comfort you.

TMC said...

I had a similar reaction at the funeral of a friend in high school. It seemed so wrong that they were putting him into the ground. I cried and cried.

Anat said...


In the first funeral I went to, and in every subsequent funeral in Israel, they lowered the body down in Tachrichim, with no casket. I actually saw the head bobbing when they lowered the body. I couldn't get that image out of my head for weeks, so I totally understand how you were feeling. Not being prepared for what happens at a levaya, or having different experiences, can really cause you to be thrown off when experiencing it.

That being said, I don't think you are a softy. I think you, and I, and anyone who attends a Jewish funeral, feels the full brunt of the verse "For you are from dirt and to dirt you shall return", and that was probably the intention of the sages who "designed" the ceremony. I think the intention is for us to realize how fleeting our lives are, and appreciate everything that g-d has given us for the time we are in this world.

Anonymous said...

The Curmugeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

Israeli funerals where you can see the wrapped body in the tachrichin are less disturbing, to my mind, than the non-Jewish custom of "viewing the body". More and more, the latter custom seems grotesque, while the Jewish funeral, even without the coffin, emphasizes that the person is no longer THERE in the body.

I spent a difficult but unforgettable Friday mornng a few years ago disposing of particles of remains left after a convert friend had expired at his home. (It sounds bad enough even without the details) The chevra kadisha couldn't get there until after Shabbat, and he had no other family member to do it. Oddly, it was the most spiritually uplifting mitzvah I have ever experienced.

sheldan said...

Chaviva, I lost my mother two weeks ago. I am really trying to process everything that I intellectually was expecting with the mourning period.

For a long time, the only funerals that I had attended were of my grandmothers (the first at age 15, the second at 42). Then there were others of family and friends, but this of course hit me up close. My wife lost her parents some time ago and is helping me get through this.

I stayed home for the shiva period (we had minyanim at my father's home) and went to other services at shul. Friday night, when the congregation greeted me at Kabbalat Shabbat, was different when I was the one being comforted, since up to now I had only known of this ritual by noticing it in the prayerbook. I am observing Sheloshim through Erev Pesach and growing a beard until then.

Sometimes it is interesting to find a post at the appropriate time. Please excuse my rambling, but I always appreciate your wisdom and thank you for hearing me out.

PamBG said...

In the UK, Christian coffins (and they *are* "coffins" as opposed to caskets) are very simple and, just as you experienced at the Jewish funeral, they are lowered into the grave with everyone there. Family are invited to throw handfuls of earth into the grave if they wish. I've conducted a number of such funerals.

I do understand that there are particular requirements for Jewish funerals, but I'm not so sure that there is "typical Christian funeral". From *my* perspective, I would have contrasted a US Christian funeral with a UK Christian funeral. But I totally agree with you that US Christian funerals have become quite sanitized. And don't even *talk* to me about the new trend of "We don't want to have a funeral or a memorial".

Anonymous said...

I was about to say the same thing as Pam - here in Australia we lower the coffin in at the end of the service and throw earth on it at Christian funerals. It is a very visual reminder of the finality of death.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

It's so interesting to hear about traditions in different places for what we all consider to be the same religion (referring here to Christianity). So interesting! Also, I'm sure that my familiarity with Christian burial in the Midwest doesn't make me an expert on Baptist funeral traditions in the south, too.

Overall, as I think you've all pointed out ... it's not easy for anyone. Whether related or a friend or anything ... death is just rough. The visceral nature of burial (for some) is something I suppose I'll never get used to.

@PamBG Yeah ... we had family that said no funeral or memorial, which was weird. It feels so impermanent.

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