Kind of a tough topic, this one. Not exactly a toe-tapper for a Friday, but appropriate given the week. We’re very good friends with our next door neighbors. He happens to also be our Rabbi, she happens to be wonderful, and their two sons are great young men and we’ve forged equally strong friendships with them. Not too often you find friends like this. Since I try not to name direct names in Stew’s Brew, other than my own family, I’ll just call them Rabbi, the glassblower (for son #1, since that’s his profession), Miami (son #2 goes there to school) and for the wife, who defies all description, I’ll just call her The Most Interesting Woman in The World. (And those that know her, will laugh, as will she!)
The Rabbi’s dad died on Monday of this week – he had been stricken ill by a catastrophic stroke at 81 years old. Generally, he had been in great health up until late fall, when he had what seemed like a smaller version of this and had fallen and hit his head, but he was rebounding from that and coming along well. And then … well, G-d was merciful and swift.
The funeral was yesterday, Rabbi spoke, his sister spoke, Rabbi’s uncle (brother to the deceased) spoke, and the glassblower spoke. All of them had such eloquent words to say about their departed dad, brother, and grandfather. Funerals are both wonderful things and terribly sad things. When attending funerals such as yesterdays, I find myself thinking a couple of thought streams – one, “what stops us from saying such wonderful things about the living?” And two, a thought I have when I don’t know the deceased well, “I sure wish I knew him better.”
The things I already knew about Rabbi’s dad were that he was a nice man, he was always impeccably dressed whenever I saw him, even if the dress was casual, he had a very close relationship with the two grandsons I knew, the glassblower and Miami, (Rabbi’s sister also has three kids, and there’s more), The Most Interesting Woman in the World thought he was a wonderful grandpa and father-in-law, and loved his wife, and he was very proud of his son, the Rabbi. I also knew that his first wife had passed some years ago, but I wasn’t sure how long, and that he had found someone and remarried, and she is a wonderful person too. But honestly, that was about it – we’d been around him and his wife for events where their family was present, and sat across from each other at a few Shabbat dinners but that was about it.
What I learned about him at the funeral is that he was a quiet, steadfast guy, who immensely loved his family, worked exceptionally hard his whole life to provide well for his family, that despite having a son in the rabbinate, that he wasn’t a terribly religious guy, although he loved watching his son do the work, and that when he remarried late in life, he became Grandpa and “Dad” to his new wife’s whole family as well. We also heard so many wonderful and often humorous stories as each person spoke. There was much love in the room in this funeral.
I wish I had known him better, for sure. I do know first hand the emptiness Rabbi and his sister must be feeling, having lost my Dad 21+ years ago. There’s no moving on from that. The ache gets replaced with warmth, but the hole in your life is never refilled.
This takes me in a different direction. Since embracing Judaism, I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the Jewish grieving process. First the burial process is even different. If geography, family arrival, etc. all align, the tradition is to have a funeral no more than two days after death, and ideally, the following day. They don’t embalm the body, and in traditional ways, the bodies are never left alone from death until burial, nor are they dressed in street or fine clothing but instead are lovingly washed and then wrapped in a simple linen shroud. The casket is all wood, and is placed in direct contact with the earth. The funeral services are somewhat similar, but the graveside is quite a bit different, and well, comforting. You literally watch as the crew lowers the casket into the grave, and then at the end, the tradition is for each mourner to shovel three scoops of dirt into the grave on top of the casket. And after that, the tradition is to wait until the crew fills the grave with dirt.
After that, the tradition moves to “Shiva” which is gathering at the home of the mourners – and do what folks do in that sense – eat, schmooze, reminisce and tell stories of the deceased. It is somewhat like a wake, but takes place after the funeral. Very traditionally, it is a week-long time – but most cut that to a few days at most. The Shiva period I think is very unique as it allows the mourners to sort of “ease back into life” from the shock of death and the rawness of the funeral. By being around friends and family, having others attend to things like food and drink and housework and cleaning, the mourners can concentrate on remembrance and healing. It’s a good tradition.
My own observations are interesting. The first time I was confronted with the dirt shoveling thing, was at a friends’ brother’s funeral and I’ll be honest, I couldn’t do it. Since then I’ve come to terms with it, and I feel it is very much like “putting someone to bed” for the last time. At a time when that person can no longer take care of themselves, we on this side of the spectrum, take care of it for them. Make no mistake though, it is I think the moment of a funeral when the grief is the most raw. And after that’s done and you walk away, it is time to start “coming back. If you look at grief as an upside down bell curve, the bottom of the curve is that moment.
While I don’t know anyone that “likes” going to shiva, the process is wonderful to watch – it’s a bit like a party, wake, family reunion, etc. all rolled together. It is traditional to have a brief service each day, and the rhythm of it, I truly do believe, serves the needs of the bereaved. The mood seems to get progressively lighter, until by the last day, everyone is just ready for it to all be over so they can get on with life.
So anyway, a melancholy blog post to end a melancholy week. The weather was weird and gray, and miserable and this happened too. Ugh.
As this went on, I was reminded over and over this week of the passing of my own dad in July of 1992, and much of the same things were said about Rabbi’s dad as were said about mine. ”He was a great guy.” ”He was all about his family.” ”He never met a stranger.” ”Everywhere he went, he always knew someone.” ”He was always helping others.” That made yesterday both a very tough funeral for me, and a very, well, enjoyable one as well. And, as I said before, I wish I had known him better.
As you were,