Monday, April 11, 2011

A Jewish Funeral Experience

It's been around 13 years since I attended a funeral. At least, that's the last one I remember. It was my Uncle David, who wasn't really my Uncle David. I wrote a poem about it in college, recollecting the man who was more of a grandfather figure to me than anything else. Uncle David was my father's step-mother's family, distant, but oh-so-close to my father and to us kids. From the poem, "Uncle David Stole My Nose" ...
When I think about the funeral,
I remember looking into the casket
and seeing Uncle David’s face.
I remember, at that awkward age between
childhood and becoming a young woman,
wondering why he wasn’t smiling.
I remember telling my father, as we
left the burial site after crying and hugging
and holding relatives close, that Uncle
David’s lips should have been curved up.
Smiling as he always was.
Because that’s how everyone knew him,
that’s how I knew him,
when he was alive. ... 
I’ve try to forget the funeral and the burial,
while trying to keep Uncle David as
he was the last time I saw him before
he looked so sad in that big black box.
But I continue to recall driving past the Big Boy
where we’d eat with Uncle David every
now and then when we visited.
I remember crying and thinking about how
empty my dad was, because he’d
lost a father figure. But I know I cried
mostly because I’d lost a
Grandfather, and my nose would stay put
and I realized I was no longer
a child.
That funeral took place during a bizarre weekend where there was a wedding and a funeral. Emotional ups and downs were extreme. But this is my memory of funerals -- Christian funerals. 

Until this past week, I had not been to a Jewish funeral. I've written about paying shiva calls and the difficulty of really coming to terms with that tradition, but nothing could have prepared me for this week. I was, in plain words, an emotional wreck graveside. 

At my Uncle's funeral, it began with service at the funeral chapel, there were Bible verses read, the mood was depressing and morose, and seeing my dead uncle in the box put a forever-image in my head. We all took off to the graveside service afterward, where, everyone, dressed in black, huddled around the plot that had been carved out. The beautiful casket was held on props while words were said, words from the Bible were read, and then we departed. Only after that was the casket lowered -- we didn't watch the casket go down. We left knowing that he was still floating somewhere above the service. 

At Roszi's funeral (I blogged about her passing here) -- as I assume is true at all Jewish funerals -- the casket was lowered simply in its wooden-box form into the space in the ground. A rabbi related Roszi's life to those of us huddled under umbrellas in the cold rain, and then, then the men took a shovel and heaved dirt onto the wooden casket. 

Thump. Thump. Thump. 

And I lost it. I don't know why, but my tears just streamed -- and as I write this, my eyes are welling ... and I just don't know why. The sound of dirt -- dirt to dirt -- hitting a simple wooden casket was something I hadn't expected. Something that, to be honest, would never have happened at a funeral back home, back in my old life. The sounds ruptured something deep within me, emotions for a woman who I had barely known and who had not known me at all. 

"How many times did you even meet Roszi?" my husband asked after the funeral. 

I suppose that this is the purpose of such a visceral display of Jewish burial. It is participatory, permanent, and real. In a way, I suppose it seals the truth and the reality of what has happened. As people started to walk away, people were chattering and smiling and everyone except for the immediate family and I seemed to be unshaken by the events. 

I started to wonder: Have I become a softy? Overemotional? Or was it simply my neshama crying out for the loss of a soul so tortured for absolutely no reason.