Serving a large congregation this is something that happens every once in a while. A number of deaths all within a short period of time, with the funerals following one after another. I still remember to this day a week many years ago when I officiated at six funerals from Monday to Friday, with three of them – three! – on the Friday. Try writing a sermon after that.
Last week was even more challenging. Seven funerals in a six day span – two Sunday, one Monday, one Wednesday, two more Thursday, and one Friday. I know when I get called about a funeral I need to find 5-6 hours. An hour or so to meet with the family preparing for writing the eulogy. Writing the eulogy, which takes approximately an hour and a half (an hour if really pressed for time). Conducting the service, two hours. And then another hour or so for a shiva visit/leading a shiva service. One funeral makes the week busy. Two makes it challenging. Three makes it a bit crazy. Four, you don’t get much else done. Five? Six? Seven? That becomes your entire week. Day by day, hour by hour, you meet with families, write eulogies, conduct funerals, and make shiva visits. And that is pretty much all you do. Email falls into a sort of triage system – only the absolute ‘must respond to emails’ get attention (and sometimes they don’t). Phone calls the same. Hospital visits are aside. You just don’t have time. What you absolutely HAVE to do (the funerals and what is required for them) takes precedence over all of the other things that you need to do. Then when the funerals stop you try to catch up.
You might think that each funeral gets easier, but I find the opposite is true. I actually got more emotional as the week went on. Maybe it began to wear me down. I don’t know, because the truth is in the midst of it I am just doing, and not processing, not thinking. On one level I just hope I get it all right. Remember the names, stay focused, stay ‘present’ for the families. It all becomes a blur, but then there are some striking moments that stand out. Beautiful and meaningful comments made by family members about a person they love. The powerful affirmation of life in the face of loss and grief. Also the ritualization of it – each service essentially the same. The same prayers uttered, the same physical actions, the same slow procession behind the coffin leaving the chapel.
There is comfort and wisdom in that ritualization. The family wants to know ‘how can we do this? How can we say farewell to a person whose life was bound up in ours?’ They are faced with a task that on the surface, and perhaps even more so under the surface, seems impossible. But the tradition has an answer. This is how we will do this. We will meet, we will talk about the person you’ve lost, we will conduct a funeral service with these elements, a burial where you will place earth on the casket. Not that this is easy, but there is a way.
Finally, it is exactly the same and entirely different all at the same time. The service does not change, but each family is unique, each person lost an individual unlike any other. At the end of the day I suppose that is precisely my role. To help a family, for the very first time, remember and honor an individual, but to do so within the structure of an ancient tradition, exactly as it has been done so many times before.