I recently attended a very pretty funeral and was surprised to discover that it felt wrong to me.
Living in Israel has changed my perspective on so many things, it turns out that I have developed a new way of seeing funerals too.
A mother of a neighbor died. She had a long good life although her youth was marred by the horrors of the Holocaust that never really left her. Her son arranged her burial in the cemetery where his father had chosen to be buried, a private cemetery where he could have a non-religious funeral.
The Holocaust caused his father to develop a problem with religion.
The funeral was in a private cemetery in a kibbutz near Haifa. The location is beautiful. The graves are spaced out, each with its own unique style.
Unlike the municipal cemeteries run by the Hevra Kadishah, who also conduct the funeral ceremony according to Jewish tradition, in the private cemetery you can have any kind of ceremony you want. Some of the people who choose this route are not Jews. Some are Jews who for whatever reason developed a distaste for the religious. Others simply like the freedom of choice and the prettier location.
In general, Israelis are horrible at ceremonies. Pageantry takes timing, care of details and “prettifying” reality – Israelis don’t do that.
The first Israeli funeral I went to shocked me to the core. I was in 10th grade and the brother of a girl in my class died in a training accident in the army. The first thing that struck me was the ambulance waiting outside the cemetery in case, in their anguish, any of the relatives collapsed and needed medical care. Then came the gut-wrenching howls from some of the women of the family. Then the father saying Kaddish for his son, crying and asking God why the natural order of the world had been flipped on its head, why he had to say Kaddish for his boy when it was the boy who eventually should have said Kaddish for him.
Raw, gut-wrenching pain I will never forget.
I have been to many different funerals since. Too many. The way the families react is different. When and how much they choose to speak is different. The funeral ceremony itself is very spartan. The area where family and friends gather before the funeral is usually an empty, unadorned space, designed to fit large crowds. The body is brought out, wrapped in a shroud. There is no coffin (unless it’s a military funeral).
The body wrapped for burial usually looks much smaller than the person seemed in life.
It is considered a mitzvah to escort the dead to their final resting place. It’s considered a mitzvah to take part in the actual activity of burying the dead. While most of the ceremony consists of prayers for the deceased, at the end of the ceremony a direct request is made from the soul of deceased, asking for forgiveness if any offense was caused, with an explanation that if something was done that disturbed the body, it was done out of respect and in accordance with the traditional methods of preparing the deceased for their final journey. Before leaving attendees place a stone on the grave, symbolizing the permanence of memory.
It’s a utilitarian ceremony with no real thought given to beauty or comfort. It’s not meant to be comforting.
Municipal cemeteries tend to be overcrowded and unattractive, even when they are in beautiful locations (as is Haifa’s cemetery). There is none of the charm of an old cemetery you might find in the USA or Europe. This private cemetery was different. It was tranquil and pleasant.
And it felt wrong.
The place created for families to speak before the ceremony was lovely. It had a podium and pews to sit in. The deceased was brought out in a coffin, covered in a cloth that made it look more like a table than a body prepared for burial.
(The family did choose to have a Rabbi conduct the service so that part was like in standard funerals.)
My internal conflict surprised me. On one hand, my natural desire for beauty and peacefulness was answered. The environment provided everything I had felt lacking in previous funerals I attended. On the other hand, it also felt wrong.
Israeli funerals aren’t prettified because death isn’t pretty. Other people might have customs designed to make it easier for the bereaved, to distance the living from death – such as not having anything to do with the physical act of burying the deceased or even leaving before the coffin is placed in the ground. Our funerals aren’t designed to disguise the ugliness of grief. The bereaved often have intense emotions clawing at their guts and the funeral is the place to let it out – and however it comes out, it’s ok.
If you want to cry, you cry. If you feel like screaming, you can scream. The healthiest thing to do with grief is to express it and the community is there to uphold you.
Attending this unusual funeral, I was surprised at my own strongly negative reaction to seeing what as an American child I would have thought of as normal – the coffin. It seemed fake, artificial, an unnecessary, unwanted barrier between the deceased and the land that is a living player in the eternal love story of the Nation of Israel.
Does that seem strange? It must…
Living in this land has changed me. I will always love the beautiful but Israel has taught me to prefer the beauty of truth, even when it is unpleasant, messy and harsh.
It is no wonder so few, including our Jewish brothers and sisters who live elsewhere, truly understand us. Israel is the missing piece of the puzzle, living and dying in this land makes us different from who we would be without her.
6 thoughts on “Israeli funeral epiphany”
In Australia, by law, as dead person has to be in a coffin, Jews as well as Muslims. No idea about other religions. Our, Jewsih ones, as not ornate lavish and expensive ones, but raw pine. A man is wrapped in his tallis, no idea about a woman.
Forgot to check to be notified of new comments.
Yes, it’s more like a Reform US burial. At my mom’s’s funeral this past July, this is what it was like. Although the my mom’s coffin wasn’t draped it was redwood casket with a Star of David carved on the top. We sat on folding chairs while the Reform rabbi conducted the ceremony. They had black ribbons to tear for the kriah. My father and my younger sister who converted to Christianity 40 years ago used the ribbons. I had a short sleeve top on top of a modest long sleeve top so I could tear actual clothing. I was dressed as it it was an Israeli funeral. The rabbi understood. The casket was lowered into the prepared ground by the cemetery workers. My nephew (my sister’s son) who denies having Jewish blood brought roses from my mom’s rose garden to throw in with the Earth we each shoveled on top of the casket. At least mom had been ag a Jewish funeral home where she received tahara bathing and was in a shroud. But, no one could tell since she lay in this redwood casket. The rabbi gave a eulogy that my sister had prepared. Not surprised that my narcissistic sister made herself vent of attention, taking the focus off of mom. At least, my sister consulted my Israeli son and me as to the headstone so mom’s Hebrew name in Hebrew and Hebrew date of death will be in it. My nephew had hooked it up so my son in Israel could participate via WhatsApp calling on speaker.
No outbursts. I was the only one really crying and felt too surreal for me. My father just sat quiet and hunched over. But, he’s never been demonstrative. The rabbi read the poem Eli by Hannah Senesh. We all joined in saying Kaddish. I and my cousin were the only ones to wash hands when we left the cemetery. At my parents’ house afterwards, they had Japanese sushi and treif. Only things I ate was fruit, humus, and challah. Everyone else ate the shrimp and pork wontons and sushi. I left early and next day flew back home to sit shiva. At least my sister gave me one of the weeklong candles for me to light at home. The other, my cousin’s son lit at my parents. The funeral was on Thursday, 6 DAYS after mom’s death since my sister had pre arranged the funeral before mom died and didn’t want it changed. Mom had been refrigerated until the funeral. I arrived home before Shabbat began. That Sunday, my sister and mom-Jewish husband took off on vacation. Yes, it was surreal and against all Halacha. I have the religious husband of a friend saying Kaddish for my mom.
That’s really hard Dina. I’m sorry you went through that.
I believe that the dead (and God) know when our intentions are respectful and good and that is what counts most
My rabbi pounds into us the belief that actions count for more than intentions.
There are some (orthodox) rabbis who believe that intentions count for nothing; If you accidentally do the right thing according to halacha then you’re golden. At least I’ve heard this idea being attributed to some rabbis.
I believe that actions count more than intentions but they count too. If you try and fail I believe you should be judged for trying and sometimes that is harder than people who automatically or accidentally get it right