A Jewish Funeral.

A Christian at my first Jewish funeral was a confusing and scary experience – but what I learnt helped me to better understand differences and grow as a person living in a multicultural society.

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I grew up in a cozy street in Melbourne where all the neighbours knew one another. In fact, the really old neighbours watched my Dad grow up in the 1930s, get married in the 1960s and then have us four kids.  The neighbours then watched us grow up, get married and move away; though we always stayed in touch – they were like family.

One of our older neighbours, Mrs Rockman, passed away and this is the story of my experience at her funeral.

Driving into the cemetery I saw a small, brick chapel, which was surrounded by graves with black granite headstones, engraved in both English and Hebrew languages. My family were gathered out the front of the chapel and my sister, Michelle, jumped down from the concrete foyer to show me an empty parking space.

Michelle told me about the seating arrangements while we made our way toward the gathering.  She whispered, “The men sit on one side of the room and women sit separately, on the other.”

I nodded.  There was no time for small talk and we entered the room. There were about a dozen mourners in there; the men seated to the right and the women to the left.  I scanned twice for the coffin – but it was nowhere to be seen. Signs were permanently secured to the yellow-brick sidewalls, which read: ~Men to Sit Here~ and ~Ladies to Sit Here~.   A central aisle separated men from ladies and I wondered why?  Years later a Jewish friend told me that men and ladies were also separated by a curtain at weddings.

The room was furnished with rows of old, cracked, dark brown, vinyl flip-chairs on metal frames, a small, wooden lectern had a mechanical candle on each front corner, and a red carpet runner lay over cream-coloured carpet.  I pushed my seat down and felt the strong pull of the spring, drawing it back upwards, so I quickly sat down.  The coldness of the room and the strong spring in the seat made me feel unwelcome.

The building felt bitterly cold – there was no heating and no lining on the inside walls.  The bricks glared at us in a cold and harsh manner and the concrete oozed through in untidy, inconsistent blobs and dribbles. It’s as if this room had been stripped of anything but the necessities and I saw none of the usual identifiers that this was a funeral; there were no flowers, holy monuments or photographs.

I wondered if this might be the ante-room; a place to wait before going on to the real funeral room.  But this was a one-room building.  And the Rabbi was standing behind the small wooden lectern waiting.  There were muddy stains near the double doors to the left of the Rabbi.  “They didn’t vacuum,” I whispered to Michelle.  She nodded her agreement, and the Rabbi began.

He spoke in Hebrew and his words flowed like a beautiful song.  The song lulled me and brought a sense of calm to the room.  After speaking in Hebrew, he spoke in English.  His voice was very comforting and I felt at home right away in this unfamiliar environment, which seemed more like a garage than a chapel.

The Rabbai was still singing when the doors near the muddy carpet were suddenly and unexpectedly flung open from the outside, which jolted me from the Rabbi’s song.  The Rabbi fell silent and bowed his head and I would have followed his example, but my burning curiosity forced me to stay alert to the doorway.

A very tall man with a neat, dark blue suit and white shirt was standing there.  His black hat was much taller than the average hat and the brim much wider.  He took a step forward and entered the room, then waved his arms to some other people outside.  I stretched forward, wondering if he’d made a mistake and interrupted Mrs Rockman’s funeral in error.  What stood out even more about this man were his knee-high gumboots; which were covered in yellow, sticky, muddy clay.  Gumboots with his suit looked so extraordinary. And now the red carpet was getting muddy as he strode over to the lectern as if he were the only one in the silent room.

He stood in front of the lectern and waved his arms toward the gaping doorway again. It’s as if he was directing a reversing truck, though there was no truck.  More men appeared.  They wore the clothes of builders or roadworkers and had mud splashed and scraped all over them.  Their hands, shoes, backs, elbows and shoulders bore the mud they’d been digging. And they wheeled a very rickety, shaky, metal trolley to the front of the lectern, with Mrs Rockman’s coffin atop.  The wind had blown the black cloth up on one corner and the plain, unvarnished, undecorated pine box glared out of its covering.

The one wearing a suit and gumboots led the muddy workers out through the side door and we were left in peace, this time with the deceased in the room. Mrs Rockman was late for her own funeral.

The Rabbi had remained completely motionless and silent, with his head bowed for Mrs Rockman’s late and bumpy arrival. Once the workmen left, he resumed the service like a video does after pressing the pause, then play buttons.

He talked of Mrs Rockman’s birth in Poland, her life, achievements and disappointments – and I listened with interest.  Mrs Rockman was the neighbor who knew everything about everybody, but it was only at this moment that I realised we knew very little of her.

Next was talk of her entry to ‘paradise’.  The Rabbi explained it is the Jewish belief that every good deed in our lifetime is rewarded after our death.  Each good deed creates an angel who greets us upon our arrival in Paradise.  I conjured up a very crowded image of angels greeting the kind and loving Mrs Rockman.  I’d grown up with her comments about how beautiful my two front teeth looked when I was seven; how skilled I was to climb the biggest tree when I was nine; then worrying about the length of my school dress when I was fourteen; advising me to be careful of boys who drive fast cars when I was 16 and wishing me well at my wedding.  Mrs Rockman’s husband was a dentist and passed away of cancer when I was about 7 years old.  They couldn’t have children, and they escaped the Nazis by migrating to Australia from Poland at the start of WWII.  I’d spent a lifetime with this neighbor who lived simply and cared about everybody but I only found out who she was at her funeral. I vowed not to let this happen again – it made me feel shallow.

We followed the Rabbi outside, slowly weaving our way to Mrs Rockman’s final resting place. Half way there, we stopped and listened to another calming song from the Rabbi.  At first I thought this song was to let Mrs Rockman’s soul know where we were taking her body, but it was just to pass time while waiting for the muddy workmen to finish digging her grave.  After a short wait, the muddy men jumped from the hole, and we turned left to the very freshly dug grave.

Nobody cried and the mood was like it is when strangers meet and chat about the weather.  I looked along the four graves between Mrs Rockman’s site and myself.  Every grave had small piles of quartz stones on the top.  I recognised them from the driveway and the graves averaged about half a dozen stones each.

My sister and I raised our eyebrows at the messy stones and I felt grateful for deciding not to bring my children along.  It is an unspoken rule of my children to play with such enticing displays of nature. They would have seen the grave top as a stage for little stone ladies and men characters.

The muddy men climbed out of the hole and lifted Mrs Rockman’s pine casket from the rusty trolley, literally dropping (or throwing) it down the hole. We all heard Mrs Rockman slide along the pine floor as one end got stuck on the edge of the grave – and then the thud as it slipped down to parallel again.  I gasped at the lack of care, yet the rest of the congregation didn’t seem surprised at all.

Next, the Rabbi opened a small sachet of soil and emptied it onto the coffin. My brother whispered, “I bet that’s soil from Israel” and I nodded, thinking he was clever for figuring that out.  The Rabbi then tossed the empty soil sachet into the grave like a discarded cigarette butt.  My sister and I glanced at each other again with ‘that’ look.

My brother gestured his eyes toward the muddy clay piled at the side of the gravesite.  I hadn’t noticed it or the six shovels standing in the clay.  The Rabbi called upon the men to help fill in the grave.  Always the willing helper, my sister stepped forward and reached for a shovel.  I caught her attention in time to save her from doing the men’s task.  This was just like the seating in the church – men had separate roles to the women.

The first half-dozen shovels of wet mud made drumming noises on the coffin, which sent a shiver up my spine. Mrs Rockman was buried within five minutes. The mourners turned and went to their cars but I was curious and interested in the strange surroundings.  I stayed and asked the Rabbi about the collections of stones on the graves.

His voice carried the same slow and gentle tone that he had while praying.  Gosh it was lovely.  “It’s a sign, to show how often people visit the graves,” he said as his hand made a sweeping gesture at the rows of granite.  He continued to chat and asked my name.

“Susan.” I replied.

“Do you know the meaning of your name?” he asked politely.

“I think it means Lily.”

He nodded, approving of my reply.  Then he had another question for me.  “Are you religious?”

I’m not a strictly religious person and gave a diplomatic reply.  “I was raised a Catholic.”

His questions had a humble sound of apology, as if he was being careful not to offend. “Are you a practising Catholic?” he carefully asked.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  My children are in the catholic schooling system and we occasionally go to church, yet I was sure this wouldn’t be enough to pass as a true and loyal Catholic. My lack of involvement with our local church probably wouldn’t qualify me as a proper practising Catholic and I wondered if God would strike me down with lightning for lying to a Rabbi. But my decision was made, “Yes, I am.”

He shot another question at me.  “When did you do your last confession?”

My daughter’s class made their first Eucharist and confession this year, so my reply wasn’t really a lie.  “In April.”

It started to rain and I stood there getting soaking wet wondering if I might have been struck down with lightning if my lie were any bigger.

The Rabbi and I stood in the rain talking about Mrs Rockman and how the Jewish people believe in very plain and simple funerals – with no hype or ceremony. He added that they wear very simple, cotton nightdress in the coffin. Everything as simple and natural as possible.  He then injected some small-talk.  He was once in a car accident and now his stomach plays up when eating certain foods. Cold, wet and wanting to walk away, I wondered if God thought this rainy conversation would be a good penance, you know, for my lie about being a good, practising Catholic  – so I stood talking until he decided it was time to walk back to the car park.

Mrs Rockman’s simple ceremony was nothing like any funeral I’d been to in the past but, afterwards, it all made sense.  I liked the no-fuss approach of the Jews.  It showed me that they truly believe the soul is in no way connected to the body after death.  The funeral was for the mourners to reconcile the idea that her soul had, in fact, left her body.  Anything else would have been a performance and I felt ashamed for judging the building, the carpet, the muddy clothes, the rickety trolley ride into the chapel and the very freshly dug grave.

However, I’ll always hope they didn’t mean to toss the coffin in so roughly – accidents happen.

Photo:  MyJewishLearning.com

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Author: The Life Of Sue

I live by the sea in the Australian state of Victoria. My life hasn't been very extraordinary, however I seem to have a way of looking at my life events that makes them seem a little sensational. This is because I enjoy words and I cherish the art of storytelling. Painting a picture of my life experiences for others to share is relaxing and fun. Although these things really happened to me, I usually change names to protect the privacy of others; and there are many stories that will never be told on this forum. I believe I could write a story a day for the rest of my life - I'd never run out of things to write. See all my stories at www.thelifeofsue.wordpress.com

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