Monday, September 16, 2013

The Funeral

The Funeral

I sat amidst a sea of black
Punctuated by an occasional flash of red sweater
And looked at the numb faces of 200 people
Gathered there to say goodbye to you.
The sign at the front of the synagogue
(on display only for funerals)
said “Silence would be appreciated,”
and so there was only a low hum of conversation
much quieter than it ever is on Shabbat.

There were dozens of people I didn’t know
Because your reach into the community was just that great,
And it was easy to tell who wasn’t Jewish –
The woman who picked up the Mahzor
(the High Holidays prayer book, because we’re
not done with that just yet) –
first holding it upside down,
then looking at it from left to right,
looking perplexed as she realised that
these numbers seemed backwards.

There are no hymns at a Jewish funeral,
and in fact, it can often seem perfunctory,
almost businesslike, compared to
funerals in churches, where there is music
carefully chosen to reflect the dearly departed
(or the wishes of the family).
Sometimes, there is incense there
(but not in a synagogue).

Your family came in together,
Before the watchful eyes of a sanctuary full to overflowing,
Coffin covered in its blue velvet miktze,
Embroidered with the Hebrew words
tzedakah tatzeel mimavet…"
"Charity redeems from death…” (I’m not sure what that means.)

You were with us and not with us…
Washed and made ready for your shroud
By women of the Chevra Kadisha,
women who knew you
and your husband and children.
Before you could be wrapped in your shroud
(no special funeral wardrobe, no jewellery),
you were washed, very gently,
prayers said at each instance of washing
so that your spirit would not be offended
by the way you were made ready.
And so you, the guest of honour,
Arrived for this last of the Jewish
Life cycle events.

Your brother eulogized you beautifully
and was very brave
(you would’ve been so proud of him).

Your friend and colleague spoke about
meeting you when you were both young doctors,
and about how very smart you were.

Your niece, almost unbearably young
(younger, even, than your children)
spoke about how she loved you and
how special you made her feel.

Your childhood friend,
who got almost to her last couple of words
before she started to cry.
Gulping air, eyes closed, she held up a finger  -
“Wait just a minute, and I can finish,” she said,
without ever saying a word.
And she opened her eyes,
Smiled tremulously, and wished you goodbye.

Your cousin, from half a world away,
who surely would rather have been sitting somewhere
sipping Mai Tais with you.

Life would never be the same for any of them,
because you were the lynchpin.
We heard some Hebrew chanting –
not the usual Jewish funeral, in fact,
and went to the cemetery.
The sun was shining, and it was warmer outside
Than when I had left work to get to your funeral.

The cemetery was almost as full of people
as the synagogue had been.
There was a little more prayer here,
but really, this was the final goodbye.
Our tradition says that here, at the cemetery,
is where we can do the greatest mitzvah of all,
the greatest good deed,
the most fulsome lovingkindness.

And so one at a time, we took the shovel.
first, a little bit of dirt on its back,
dropping onto your coffin, sounding like seeds on paper.
Then, 2 more shovelfuls each.
Thunk. Thunk.
Until your coffin had a layer of dirt covering its top surface,
every shovelful sounded like a gunshot.
Nobody spoke.  We stood silently, watching, waiting
until it was our turn.
Pick up the shovel. A tiny bit of dirt on the back.
And to the gash in the earth that is your last place in this world.
Two more shovelfuls. 
Hand the shovel to the next mourner.

This is the last mitzvah
Because it is the one that can never be repaid.
It is the one that hurts the giver.
It is the one that makes your death
Even more real than its announcement on Shabbat.

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