Saturday, November 30, 2013

The First Funeral

This past Sunday I had the kavod, the honor, of conducting the funeral of one of my mother-in-law's best friends, Helen.

First, let me be clear: Sunday wasn't about me. Sunday was about being a kli kodesh - a holy vessel - and facilitating the memorial of one incredible woman. Helen was one-of-a-kind; a mother and wife and sister and friend who died suddenly and far too young. It was a surreal, sad, and difficult day, but it was one that gave me food for thought about the career I've chosen to pursue. Below are my thoughts on the process itself.

This was the first funeral I'd ever done. It wasn't a dress rehearsal or a practiced memorial service, which we've done throughout school. This was in real time, with a real grieving family; one I know well. It was serious and nerve-wracking and upsetting and really, really hard. I was the authority, the ringleader, and the decider. To their credit, HUC has done a great job of preparing me for leading a memorial service. But to be in the moment, standing face-to-face with mourners, requires a set of skills few classes can teach you.

The funeral began the Friday before, when I went over to the house to speak with the family. When a rabbi or cantor performs any life cycle event, they typically do what's called an "intake." No matter how close a family may feel to a rabbi, the intake sheds light on stories never told and on memories not yet shared. For weddings, funerals, B'nai Mitzvahs, and baby namings, the intake presents a much clearer window onto where the family is "at" leading up to the rite of passage.

The intake was extraordinary. We all cried, we laughed, and I learned much more about Helen than I had ever known. Her husband and daughter shared stories that blew me away, and I shared those very stories from the lectern on Sunday morning. I was able to gain clarity on how Helen came to be Helen, and on the deep sense loss in which her loved ones were immersed.

The funeral itself took place on a beautiful sunny day in Simi Valley. A large crowd turned out, many of them still shocked by the news. As "the rabbi," my job was to be present: to listen and comfort and serve as a receptacle for people's grief. Even though I knew Helen, I wasn't a mourner on Sunday; I was the facilitator. Knowing and owning that was essential, as was carving out space for myself to say goodbye to her in my own way.

As it has been at funerals I've attended in the past, the hardest part was the burial. Saying goodbye and speaking platitudes in a service is one thing; lowering your loved one into the ground and placing earth upon their casket is just something entirely different. Watching her bereaved husband shovel earth into the grave on Sunday, listening to him bid farewell to his beloved wife, was beyond heartbreaking. And immediately after that, one by one, the community did their part to shovel earth into her grave. We all said our goodbyes to her, sang a round of "Me and Bobby McGee" (Helen was a big Janis Joplin fan) and eventually left the cemetery to return to our lives.

I spent the rest of the day immersed in thoughts about ritual. As many of you know, my senior thesis is on the topic of ritual: how Jews connect to Judaism through it, how we as Jewish professionals innovate it, and most importantly - how to measure whether or not a ritual has "succeeded." And much of what my chevruta and I have done is discuss what makes a ritual "work" or "not work."

Though we've concluded it's particularly challenging to evaluate oneself, I think that this funeral - as a life cycle event - really did "work." I felt like it honored Helen, it gave her loved ones the space to grieve and to mourn and laugh and cry, but it was clearly a funeral. Jews do death really, really well. We have such an intricate, well-structured system for grief and mourning. And through the sacred texts of the psalms, the hesped (eulogy) the chanting of El Maleh Rachamim, and the minhagim (customs) at graveside, I feel like we as a community sent her off right.

It was the best possible sendoff we as a community could have ever given Helen. It was a really strong learning experience for me (one, I must admit, I wish I hadn't had under these circumstances) and, I hope, as meaningful an experience as it could have been for her family and friends.

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