My brother-in-law passed away last week and we had to make an unexpected trip north. He’d been ill so the news didn’t come as a total shock, but we didn’t think it would happen right then. No one ever does. Even if your relative has been sick, you don’t think about the end. Death is too final. So began the ritual of a Jewish burial. Tradition dictates we bury the body as fast as possible, but you have to allow for out of towners to fly in and time to make all the arrangements.
On the day of the funeral, we drove in limos hired by our nephew to the funeral home (also called a funeral parlor, derived from when funerals used to take place at home). Once inside, we assembled in a private room. Immediate family members were given the choice of seeing the body. Then we hung around to receive somber dressed visitors with sad expressions who mumbled how sorry they were for our loss. As a mourner, you might want to curl up inside and reflect on your loved one and what their absence will mean in your life, but instead you’re forced to maintain your composure and survive this public ritual.
After guests were seated in the congregation, we entered and took seats in the front rows. A single bouquet of flowers graced the closed maple casket. (FYI, Jewish people send food to the house where the family will receive guests or they make donations to a favorite charity in lieu of flowers.) The Rabbi gave a lovely tribute to our beloved brother/father/husband, said some prayers and psalms, and then the children and widow took turns speaking (optional, not a requirement). Sniffles could be heard throughout the assembly. When the service completed, we filed outside and drove to the cemetery. Here we sat and/or stood shivering in the cold while more prayers were said. For a final goodbye, the casket was lowered, and family and friends took turns adding a shovel of dirt. Then we climbed back into the limos for a quiet ride to my niece’s house.
Then began the tradition of “sitting Shivah”. For Reform Jews, this is 3 days. For more religious denominations, it’s 7 days. You receive visitors, eat the food that everyone sends, and gather a “Minyon” (sp?) of at least 10 people for evening prayers. Basically we sat around, ate, and chatted for two long days. The family received deli platters (meats and cheeses), smoked fish platters (bagels and lox), various salads, fruit platters, and desserts. Someone was generous enough to send a hot meal of brisket and potatoes one night. My brother-in-law’s absence was felt but in my mind I saw his smiling face watching us.
It’s an exhausting time for the close family who has so much to deal with in a few days, including a constant flow of visitors, and yet the support helps and is greatly appreciated. It’s harder afterward, when everyone leaves and the family has to adjust to the loss in their daily routine. During this quiet but sad period of adjustment, a phone call or a sympathy card (via snail mail) is welcome. That’s when the loved one’s absence really hits, but life goes on and time marches forward. We are reminded that our turn is coming. We’d better enjoy ourselves while we can, and that’s what our dearly departed would want us to do.