The Funerals are a changin’

I have been writing lately an occasional series about the changing funeral and burial customs in Judaism.  I had planned to write several posts last week only to be interrupted in that by two funerals.  Of course the death of Debbie Friedman last Sunday and her funeral last Tuesday and then the death of a great World War II vet last Saturday and his funeral on Thursday were examples of lots of changes in Jewish funerals.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about funeral timing.  Yes we Jews are supposed to have the funeral quickly after death.The Torah teaches us you shall not leave a corpse  unburied overnight. And understands this as you shall bury it the same day.  The whole idea is Kavod Hamet- to honor and respect the dead. This is a loved one not just a body.  And so to give respect and honor to the person you pay attention to him or her and take care of the business of ensuring a proper burial.

There is much wisdom in a quick burial.  There is emotional wisdom.  When the funeral plans are drawn out over many days and sometimes weeks it creates havoc for the mourners.  Their emotions are already in roller coaster mode over the loss of dear one.  But to drag out the funeral and memorial adds layers upon layers of stress and sadness because a death isn’t really final until there is an opportunity to remember and honor a life.  That is my frustration when I hear people say “I don’t want a funeral.”  A funeral isn’t for the dead but for the living. Those that survived to provide a rite of passage for their grief.

Debbie Friedman’s funeral was unique in the way it linked mourners world-wide.  It was for her family and close friends. More than 800 people showed up to Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana.  But more than 7000 computers were linked world-wide to watch and participate in her funeral.  This is astounding.  It wasn’t just a virtual funeral service. I know folks who sang along and stood for the chanting of the El Maleh Rachamim prayer when those of us who were actually in the sanctuary at Temple Beth Sholom did.  They attended.  This is certainly a new phenomena.

The second funeral mentioned above of the World War II vet is an example of some forces beyond the Jewish world.  In regard to timing it would have been best to have his funeral Monday or Tuesday following a Shabbat afternoon death.   But the family had to wait until Thursday for the funeral service. But still had to wait longer to bury him–that won’t happen until Tuesday of this coming week.   Not the way Jewish custom and tradition demand. But he was a veteran and it was very important to him to be buried in the U.S. Military Cemetery and have full military honors at his funeral.  So the best we could do was to have the service five days after he died to include the honor guard.  And then because the U.S. Military Cemetery tells you when you can bury rather than work with you (the sheer volume in the last ten years because of two wars and additionally all of the military vets especially of World War II passing away is tremendous).  They tell you when and what time. And you have 30 minutes to complete a burial service. But you can’t even stand next to the grave as is Jewish custom, nor place earth in the internment site.   Rather you only get to witness from afar.

So Jewish funeral customs are changing and being impacted by the world around us.  As for me I still want it the old-fashioned way-in the ground quickly when the time comes.

Parental trip

I visited my parents this week.  Yes I had to come across the country to do so. But my parents are both dead.  My dad in 1994 and my mom in 2006.  It is hard to be an orphan.  It happens to us all.  I was lucky I was an adult when my folks died. But for me the sadness I feel at missing them is always with me.

Even as I drove into the cemetery I could feel the tears coming.  Every time I do get to visit their grave sites which isn’t nearly as often as I would like, I well up inside. And the tears always flow.  The section they are buried in is a small Jewish section in a municipal cemetery.  Off in a far corner of the cemetery, behind a traditional hedge that sets it apart from the rest, my parents’ two graves have simple markers.  That was their preference too.

I always have to dig around to find a stone to leave.  I had to apologize to my Dad because while I found one stone of decent size, the second stone was smaller and this time he got the smaller stone. I didn’t want to insult him.  But they never have pebbles or stones nearby, and somehow leaving a pine cone wasn’t the same.

I also have a nephew buried near-by. Actually a great nephew who died of SIDS as an infant.  I always spend some time with him as well. Imagining his life if he had lived.

I know many people today are choosing other options instead of burial.  Some choose to donate their bodies to science. And this is a noble option.  Others go against Jewish tradition and choose cremation. It is certainly less expensive.   But I take comfort in visiting the cemetery. And visiting my parents at least once a year when I come east.

I talk to them daily.  And give thanks for their lives  But I know if I lived nearby-I would visit more frequently.   It brings me comfort.

I hope it brings them a measure of comfort and peace as well.