On Funerals


Did you read the title and declare, “Oh no, he’s on his death kick again?” If so, you have my permission to take the week off and hope for something sunnier next week.

Yesterday a group of us flew to Minneapolis to support a friend whose father had died. The funeral was held in the chapel of a well-known Catholic university in Saint Paul where he had taught. The snow was piled high in the streets outside, but we managed because so many buildings in the twin cities are connected with either underground tunnels or elevated skyways. When we emerged in the chapel after trekking beneath a series of campus buildings, we were greeted by an imposing view — lush blue stained-glass windows depicting Bible scenes and characters, a majestic pipe organ, high decorated ceilings and, of course, a large construction of Christ on the cross suspended from the ceiling.

In the midst of this sacred atmosphere, I couldn’t help but reflect on the importance of mortuary cold rooms, where the departed find their final repose. I’d only been to one Catholic funeral before this which unfolded in ways that surprised me. Amidst the ceremonies of the Mass — hymns, prayers, Bible readings, a homily, communion — the dead person went somehow unacknowledged. Apparently, the celebration of his life was implicit in the enactment of the elements of the Mass. No need to eulogize him or share anecdotes from his life’s story. We once attended a Unitarian funeral which had a similar air of the abstract about it. There was no acknowledgement of the person who’d died, just a set of readings from literature and poetry that the family found appropriate. We left feeling that we’d missed the man himself.

This was so different from the Jewish funerals I was accustomed to. Although there is no prescribed order for the ceremony, you know you’ll hear the 23rd psalm chanted or sung and the mourner’s Kaddish recited, but the heart of the event is the eulogby the rabbi, who has usually interviewed the family to mine details he can use in his speech about the Meit – Hebrew for the dead person.  Sometimes this helps to create a reasonable sketch of the newly departed.  Sometimes it doesn’t:The rabbi who presided at my mother’s funeral had never met her and didn’t interview any of us. Instead, he trotted out his boiler plate “She was a woman of valor” speech. It was as if he had sentenced her to a second death.

At a Jewish funeral, any number of relatives and friends may also speak, with varying degrees of honesty and truthfulness about the Meit’s virtues and shortcomings. The Saint Paul funeral, too, made room for more than ritual: Our friend was courageous in acknowledging her father’s struggles with alcohol and her own periods of estrangement from him. I gave her high marks for not presenting us with a cardboard figure, but one whom she succeeded in bringing back to life momentarily in all his complexity. Afterwards she said that in a conversation with him about his own funeral plans he quoted St. Augustine who said that all must be told about the dead person, except that which would hurt the living, but he also found out about mortuary refrigeration services and more.

The eulogies by our friend, her brother and the presiding priest who had been a student of her father’s allowed us – encouraged us —   to mourn his loss. Yesterday’s event combined the pomp and established ritual with an acknowledgement that the person we had gathered to grieve was once a complex being, capable of love and indiscretion in equal measure.

When I discussed the funeral with my friend Rabbi Roy Furman, he made the compelling case for a ceremony which plays less to the individualistic and narcissistic qualities of contemporary society, embedding the celebration of the Meit in longstanding familiar ritual.

I’m not an expert on the funeral practices of other religions, but my impression is that Jews and most prominent Protestant denominations are alone in their more individualistic funeral practices. Apart from sometimes including a picture of the Meit in their ceremonies, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists do not place his/her unique life at the heart of the event.

Experiencing that funeral in snowy Saint Paul and discussing it with Rabbi Roy gives me a new appreciation of this less individualistic approach, though I’m not ready to eliminate the celebration of this particular lived life from the proceedings. What transpired in that imposing chapel struck a good balance between the universal and the personal. I will add the stipulation that if words are spoken about the Meit, they be true and not whitewashed. Painful though those words may be, they are the true way in which we show respect for the dead. As our friend’s father’s coffin was surrounded at the end by a cloud of incense before being wheeled from the chapel, I said my own silent Jewish prayer: May his memory be a blessing

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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