A Brief Moment of Joy Amid All the Pain

April 20th, 2023

As I grow older, I go to more funerals. That’s just how things work out. Each funeral is a reminder that I have a place in the batting order, and eventually it will be my turn. Someday, somebody will probably attend my wake. Or maybe they won’t. I’m not sure it matters.

I have noticed that every funeral is a bit different from all the others. Some of it has to do with the religious tradition of the participants. Some of it has to do with culture and race. Some of it has to do with the relationships that existed between the deceased individual and the survivors. Some differences are due to hidden things, personal histories that are obscure and perhaps unknowable. This means that comparing funerals is much like comparing apples and oranges. It cannot be done objectively.

I am still going to try to do that.

I have been to funerals that were deeply moving and heartfelt. During those services people were often sad, but also emotionally authentic. The mourners were grieving, but they still wanted to be there. They really wanted or needed to say that final farewell. I have also been to funeral services which were perfunctory, just efforts to grudgingly perform an unpleasant duty. For whatever reason, the attendees were there reluctantly, as if they were fulfilling a requirement, and wanted to fulfil it as quickly as possible. I hated those funerals.

On Monday my wife and I attended a funeral for the son of my friend from the synagogue. A Jewish funeral is also called a “levaya”, which in Hebrew means to “accompany” or “escort”. At a Jewish funeral the mourners are there to escort the deceased on his or her journey to the next life. Once the coffin has been placed in the ground, the mourners are then supposed to escort the surviving family members through their journey of grief.

At the cemetery there is a tradition where each mourner, starting with the family members, is offered the opportunity to shovel three scoops of earth on top of the casket once it has been lowered into the ground. The first scoop of earth is placed on the back side of the shovel, symbolizing the fact that the mourner performs this duty (mitzvah) with great reluctance. The next two shovelfuls are scooped up in the normal way. This custom is strikingly visceral. In American culture, we tend to sanitize and sugarcoat death. Not at this funeral. The finality of death becomes profound when the mourner sees and hears the dirt hitting the top of the pine box. It is suddenly real.

My friend is old, very old. His son was only a year younger than I am. My friend and his family are all refugees from the old Soviet Union. His son was an officer in the Soviet Army and was deployed to Afghanistan, back when the Russians thought it was a good idea to invade that country. The son was badly wounded in Afghanistan and came back to his family with PTSD and a severe problem with alcohol. After forty years, the booze finally killed him. My friend and his wife never gave up on their son. Through four decades, they tried help him in any way they could. My friend always talked about his boy whenever we met. His son was in the old man’s mind and heart every waking moment.

During the funeral, the old man maintained his composure as best he could. Both he and his wife were remarkably stoic as the rabbi and their daughter talked about the son that they had lost. When the son’s coffin was lowered into the earth, the father broke down and wept. His love for his lost child was written on his face for all to see. Later, my friend joined the rabbi in reciting the mourner’s kaddish. That had to be a struggle for him, but he needed to do it for his son.

The funeral at the Jewish cemetery was intense. The grief of the parents was palpable. My wife and I had brought our little grandson, Asher, along with us. At the very end of the service, my friend smiled and played a bit with Asher. He loves the boy. He tried to get Asher to give him a high five, which Asher did. That was a brief moment of joy amid all the pain. Despite the sadness of the burial, there was love, real love.

The funeral on Monday reminded me of a funeral from long ago. I had a younger brother who died of alcohol related problems. My brother had not been in a war, but he had suffered his fair share of trauma. Like my friend’s son, my brother’s last years were a long, slow, downward spiral. It was excruciating to watch my brother die bit by bit. Eventually, I kept away from him, because I was scared and didn’t know what to do anymore.

My brother’s funeral was difficult. My father handled the arrangements, just like my friend took care the funeral for his son. My friend buried his son with love and affection. As far as I could tell, my dad buried my brother with utter indifference. He was emotionally cold and distant. He did what was needed to be done and no more.

The priest who presided over the funeral service knew next to nothing about my brother. He asked the assembled mourners if they wanted to say something. Only my wife and I spoke up. Everyone else was silent. I believe there was a variety of emotions swirling around at the funeral: sorrow, anger, guilt, apathy. People were impatient for it to end. I didn’t sense much love. Maybe love was there, but deeply buried by other feelings.

I remember that, sometime after my brother’s funeral, my father handed me a tiny urn with some of my brother’s ashes in it. As he gave it to me, he shrugged and said,

“Well, that’s over with.” Then he immediately started talking about some yard work he needed to do at home.

My father and my brother did not get along, to put it mildly. When my brother got really sick, my dad wrote him off. As far as my father was concerned, this son of his no longer existed. We never even talked about him at family gatherings. Maybe the only way my father could deal with my brother’s physical and mental collapse was to ignore him, and when his son was dead, he could completely forget him. I don’t know. I will never know.

Some funerals provide closure and a feeling of hope.

Some don’t.

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