Tag Archives: funeral

A Week in the Life

Some of what I’ve seen this week:

A four month old baby nestling in the lap of his 90 year old great-grandmother.  His head fit perfectly into the crook of her right arm.  It was a celebration of his naming and conversion (he had been to the mikveh earlier in the day), and also of her special birthday.  The entire family was gathered around.  The children, now in their late sixties, the grandchildren creeping close to their forties, the great-grandchildren, ranging from 10 or so all the way down to this newest addition.  His eyes were bright and wide as he took in his surroundings, his cousins, the generations of his family.  She radiated joy, even tough life was not easy, even though she was mostly wheelchair bound, even though …

But what is a day like that, a moment like that, a family like that, worth?  Maybe the answer is this:  everything.

 

A seventy year old man got up to eulogize his mother.  She died at 94, after a long, good, and full life.  She had seen the birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had been blessed with good health well into her 90s, had lived with a sense of joy and gratitude.  Truly a good life, a life to celebrate.

He spoke simply and clearly, related a story or two, talked about characteristics and qualities, laughed a bit.  And then cried.  Even when you are 70 and your mother is 94, even when the life was good and long, even when there is so much to be grateful for, a loss is a loss, and your mother is your mother, and the one who brought you into the world is no longer there for you, as she always was.  The grief is real, and the pain is deep, and the heart is torn and needs time to mend and heal and feel grateful again.

 

A man in his 80s has been fighting an insidious disease for a long time.  I visit him every few months, to check in, to catch up, maybe to lighten his spirit just a bit.

His independence is slowly but surely eroding.  From living alone to living in a supported living environment, from being able to walk with a walker to riding in a motorized wheelchair, to now needing to be pushed everywhere.  His mind is sharp, he watches it happen, bit by bit, day by day.

He fights with great strength of spirit and even greater dignity.  He smiles and jokes, he goes about his day in the best way he can, he gets up each morning, gets dressed, mindless tasks for us, monumental tasks for him.

We chat about the stock market (oy!), the Ravens (he is a fan and anticipating this weekend’s game), and most of all about his family.  He plans for the future, thinks about how he can improve his life, and finds within himself the grit and determination to do so.

The morning blessings we recite each day remind us to be grateful for the ability to stand, to move, to stretch, to dress, to rise from bed, to welcome the morning’s first light.

Life, too, can remind us of how grateful we should be for each and every day.

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A Day in the Life

Of a rabbi, of course.  This was Sunday, a busy one, filled with lifecycle events as Sundays so often are.  My schedule had been complicated by a funeral (something you simply can’t plan for).  I was writing the eulogy by 7:30, doing my best to pull together the threads of the conversation I had had with the family the previous day.  A long and well lived life, one worthy of both celebration and gratitude.  The funeral was scheduled for 1.

But there were other things on the docket.  First up a conversion of a 6 month old baby boy.  I met the family, helped the parents navigate a moment that is both simple and at the very same time enormously complex.  When the baby was out of the mikveh and dry and smiling, I was back in my office.  My remaining schedule for the day:  an unveiling at 12:15, the funeral at 1, and then a wedding downtown scheduled to begin at 3:30.

Of course I had to prepare for the wedding, put together a few comments to make to the bride and groom, make sure I knew exactly what the order of the ceremony would be.  I spent the 40 minutes or so between the conversion and the time I had to leave for the unveiling doing the wedding prep.  At 11:45 I was climbing into my car to head to the cemetery for the unveiling.

Now it would be a sprint – unveiling, funeral, burial, wedding, all in rapid succession.  I met the family for the unveiling in the cemetery at 12:10, a small group gathered a year after their loss to pay tribute to memory and presence.  At 12:25 I left the cemetery and drove to the funeral home.  The funeral service began promptly at 1, with beautiful words of tribute spoken by the son and daughter of the woman who had died.  From the funeral home back to the cemetery for the burial service.  It was now 2:45.  I left the cemetery for the second time that day, pulled onto the highway, and headed downtown.

I found the proper lot, parked, took my tallit and of course the ever present Rabbi’s Manual.  I found the wedding coordinator (s!) and they led me to the bride and groom.  There is always a reaction when the rabbi arrives at a wedding – yes!  This is actually going to happen!  And soon! We signed the ketubah, were led downstairs, got in line for the procession, the music started, and we were off.  Wonderful bride and groom, laughing and so at ease.  In twenty minutes it was all over, the young couple joined together as husband and wife.

I took a breath.  A kindly bartender poured me a bourbon, and I chatted with some of the wedding guests for a time, even got to wish the groom a mazaltov.  But the day was over.  Dusk was falling, and I headed home.

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Life and Death

The phrase always stays with me. It occurred twice in my bar mitzvah Torah portion in different forms, most dramatically in Deuteronomy 30:19: “I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life! – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord Your God…” In the synagogue where I grew up the bar mitzvah boys actually had to translate the Torah into English as they were reading it, line by line, phrase by phrase. And that phrase – life and death – caught my attention, even as a thirteen year old.

You grow older, you begin to understand how problematic the verse actually is. Really? As if we actually have a choice, as if we can change the decree of fate, as if we are in control. Of course you can work with the verse, massage it, step outside of the literal and look for the metaphoric. And that can help. Here is one way to do it: the verse isn’t about quantity, but quality. Belief doesn’t guarantee a certain number of years, but it can help you find greater meaning in whatever number of years you do have. And that works pretty well, actually, at least for me. It rings true, it just feels right.

But yesterday I had an experience that let me see the verse through a different lens. A funeral, and I was at the cemetery with the family. Two siblings burying a brother who had died suddenly. As we were walking the casket to the grave, a family member approached me with an iPhone. A baby had been born into the family, just as we were arriving at the cemetery. Here was a picture of the newborn, swaddled, tiny hat on, bright black eyes peering out at a new world.

Life and death, death and life. One member of the family leaving this world, and literally at the very same moment a new member of the family arriving. We call it the cycle of life, and at times it can be vey powerful. What we are linked into. How we are connected. For each of us it begins with life and ends with death. But for families, for the generations that come and go, death and life are not really endings or beginnings, they are instead part of a tapestry, a history, a narrative that goes on and on. Even after we are physically gone we are still a part of it all, our image woven into the tapestry for others to see, our part of the narrative written in words that are read long after we are gone. In this weaving, this writing and reading, this telling and remembering, we also choose life.

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Neither nor Snow nor Heat nor Gloom of Night…

It may not be true for the Post Office any more, but it is for the rabbinate.  Yesterday Mother Nature, in a last fit of pique before Spring, decided to dump 10 or so inches of snow on Baltimore.  And on Purim day, no less!  Imagine the hutzpah!  But we managed to have Purim services in the morning, and we made a minyan.  And again this morning, the day after the storm, a small group of devoted congregants showed up, making another minyan when we might have expected otherwise.

But yesterday, in the height of the storm, I had a funeral.  It was relatively sparsely attended – mostly family and close friends.  But together we engaged in the mitzvah of קבורת המת, the dignified burial of the dead.  If at all possible we bury as quickly as we can.  This is in part for the person who has died.  It is not considered proper to leave a dead body unattended to, to let it wait somewhere for too long a period of time before burying it.  The body was a vessel that contained the soul, God’s breath of life, in the course of its earthly journey, and so the body should be treated with sanctity even after the soul is gone.

That being said, timely burial is also helpful to the family that has sustained the loss.  Judaism’s approach essentially is this:  we know we have something terribly difficult to do, an enormously painful task ahead of us.  But we will stare it in the eye, we will confront it, we will not wait, and the wisdom of the tradition will enable us to do what we must do.  The truth is when you have to bury a member of your family, you don’t think about snowstorms, or weather reports.  You hope and pray that you can do the one thing you need to do that day.  And then the next day comes, and you go forward.

So the funeral went on.  We did not linger in the cemetery, in the midst of the wind and driving snow.  But we did what we were obligated to do, to bring a person to their final resting place on this earth, and to do so with dignity, with the words of our tradition, with memory, with family and friendship.  Here is a photo of the cemetery in the storm.

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A Beautiful Cemetery

An oxymoron?  I don’t think so.  I spend a fair amount of time in cemeteries, and the simple truth is some are beautiful, some not so much.  It has to do with how they are cared for, whether or not the congregation they belong to is active and vital, whether people visit regularly.  A quiet moment in the cemetery, with the sun shining, and a breeze gently blowing, surrounded by the sense of presence, history, life, loss, memory – that is a sacred moment.

I was privileged to witness one such moment a few days ago.  I arrived at the cemetery with our Cantor, and together we waited for a funeral procession to arrive for the burial service.  A young (middle aged? – what is young anymore?) man was sitting in the grass by a gravestone, barefoot, in shorts, with the sun shining down, his hand lightly resting on the stone by his side.  He sat there for a time, in a space between this world and the next.  He softly spoke, and perhaps also listened.  A reverie of past and present, of absence and presence.

We approached him to let him know the funeral procession would soon arrive.  The burial was near the stone he was visiting.  He shook his head, as if coming out of a dream, stepping back into the concrete reality of our world and this moment.  His mother, now gone ten years.  He smiled in the sunshine remembering life and not loss, laughter and blessing and the grace of connections that can never be severed.

We exchanged a few words before he climbed into his car and drove away.  He carried with him a sense of peace, or perhaps equanimity is the better word.  Before long he will be back.

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