Thursday, May 10, 2007

Passing Away

Today was my first Jewish Israeli funeral and, well, I won't say that I've been traumatized by it, but I think I'm still trying to process the whole thing. Let's just say it's, um, different than what I'm used to.

The lady who passed away is the mother of someone we know in our congregation. We did not know her very well but I thought I'd go because of our friend. We thought it would be best for Rima to stay with the kids (good move, as you will see) so I headed out by myself. Here, if someone dies they are buried that same day or the next (at the very latest). There is a saying here about mothers of soldiers who lose sons in battle, that on that fateful day: In the morning they have a son, and in the evening they have a grave. Everything is so sudden and abrupt, it seems.

Fighting traffic, I drove east across the country and arrived at the cemetery on time (which turns out to be pretty early here). The few that were there were huddled under a makeshift tent-covering as the sparse raindrops dotted the rocky hills around us. Nobody really knew what was going on as we waited for everyone else to arrive. Soon, hearing cries from the parking lot, we knew that the families had arrived. For a while there was a lot of loud crying and a lot of hugging. Then a small van backed up to the covering. People began to gather around and concentrate their grief in this area.

Again, I hardly knew the deceased, but seeing grown adults (most all of whom were older than me) crying openly, unrestrained, and yelling "Mommy, mommy" and "My love" to the van is hard to see without breaking your heart. I don't know much about the culture here, but it seems that letting out one's emotions of sorrow is to be done here at funerals. Israelis are well known for being rather aggressive and showing a strong demeanor at all times, but one is reminded in times like these that they are very much human and hurt deeply like everyone else.

The two men who came in the van were orthodox Jews and were apparently in charge of these sorts of things. When the time came, they opened the back of the van and pulled out a gurney with the deceased covered with a black cloth, right there in front of us. The immediate family, all with torn shirts, gathered around and expressed their grief by crying, talking, or reading Psalms. A couple of them read a sort-of "goodbye letter" to their mother. Then one of the orthodox fellows, the cantor, sang some Psalms and said some prayers before the "pallbearers" lifted the deceased by the handles of a rubber stretcher off of the gurney and everyone followed them to the gravesite.

Once there, more crying and prayers. One of the granddaughters was slightly unhinged by everything and was screaming and crying uncontrollably "Grandmother, why are you leaving me?!", which didn't help calm things down. The next thing I knew, the two orthodox guys took the deceased, set her in the bottom of the grave, removed the black cloth, placed small concrete slabs over the vault, filled the hole with dirt, and put a small sign with her name on top of the new grave. That's it. Over. Done.

Some of the family read a couple of Psalms, sat next to the fresh grave, squeezed the dirt with their fingers, and then guests slowly filed by and each placed a small stone on top. Then our friend passed out cold. They took her to the side and, with about a dozen people arguing over what to do, she finally came to. That, along with the cold raindrops returning, pretty much sent everyone back to their cars and away. As for me, apart from the deep sadness I couldn't help but feel, I was a bit dazed at everything that just happened. My drive back home was a bit of a blur.

I'm very glad I went and would definitely do it again, even knowing how difficult it is. I will say that I did notice that during the funeral I was feeling a lot of agony inside, which was just a little overwhelming at times (even though everything was in Hebrew), but as soon as the last of the dirt was put on the grave the pain just sort of went away. Maybe for an outsider like me it was like getting a form of closure, in some small way.

Major life events such as these are meant to be shared with those close to us. Also, as they say, we can begin to understand better how different cultures handle these situations. It is like a small window into the inner workings of their minds, if that is possible. It made me very aware of how differently we do funerals back in the States, and how healthy it seemed for people to just let their feelings out and not hold anything in. Someone there told me that Israeli funerals are not usually like that, but mainly because the family was originally from the Arabian Peninsula that it was a bit more animated. Maybe so.

If anyone is so inclined, please remember this family in their grief.

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