Officiating at Funerals
“Thank You Shabbat Three”
January 12, 2018/26 Tevet, 5778
When Life has Met Death
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
This Shabbat we continue with my Thank You Shabbats, this evening for the people whose loved one’s funeral I officiated at. As a prelude to my thanks and to offer them fully, heartfully and soulfully, I begin with four personal reflections.
First. When I was accepted to rabbinic school at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the dean asked to meet with me. Our conversation was brief but to the point. The dean said to me, “Mark, being a rabbi is a difficult job. On any given day, you’ll have to deal with different emotionally charged situations. You may officiate at a funeral in the morning, then a wedding in the afternoon and then a Shiva minyan in the evening.” Waving his hand in front of his face to emphasize his point, the dean then said, “In these situations, what you have to do is change the mask.”
The dean was correct. Being a rabbi can be an extremely difficult job, fraught with emotionally charged situations. But the dean was also wrong, at least for me. I wasn’t about to contest his well-intentioned advice, but even as a young man just accepted to rabbinic school, I knew that I could never be a rabbi who merely “changes the mask.”
…Which leads to the second reflection. During my first two years as a rabbi, we lived in an apartment in suburban Philadelphia. One morning as I was walking into the building, I exchanged greetings with a neighbor, a young surgeon who was walking out. I said to him, “Off to the operating room?” He answered, “Yes, I’m going to slash for cash!” I replied, “I don’t think you want your patients to hear that.” He said, “Of course not, but I’m sure that you reach a point as a rabbi that you’re emotionally detached, for example, when officiating at a funeral becomes routine.” “Oh no,” I replied, “I have to give my heart in every circumstance.”
Now almost forty years a rabbi, on the days when I had a funeral in the morning, a wedding in the afternoon, and a Shiva minyan in the evening, as well as during the ups and downs on any given day, I have done my best to give my heart.
Third. It wasn’t easy. Years ago while visiting us in Pittsburgh, my sister Jackie observed, “Every time the phone rings in this house, the tension goes up.” The explanation is simple. So many times when the phone has rung over the years, it is a congregant or a funeral home calling for the saddest of all possible reasons.
Fourth. In fact at times it has been extremely difficult. Alice was invited to speak when Temple honored me on the occasion of my twenty-fifth year at Temple. She and I didn’t discuss beforehand what she could or should say. No need: no one knows me better, no one loves me more. Something she said struck deep: “With every death in the congregation, Mark dies a little bit.”
Indeed, sometimes it has been crushing. For each of your loved ones whom I buried, I mourned in my own way, with personal rituals to navigate this difficult emotional terrain.
I always touched the coffin and bid a personal farewell.
For anyone who ever wondered why I always drive myself to the funeral and the cemetery rather than by a funeral home’s limousine, a limousine was once late to pick me up, which then made me late for the funeral. Once was too often.
Over the many years, en route to the cemetery the only music I’ve listened to is Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, which for me sounds the perfect harmony of the beauty of this world with the mystery of the next world. Otherwise I listen to the news or turn off the radio altogether. Jewish tradition insists that the overall mood of L’vaiyat HaMet, “Accompanying the Dead” be solemn. Kalut Rosh, “Light headedness,” is explicitly discouraged. When people have joked with me at the cemetery, I am always uncomfortable but always polite.
O how I’ve worried each time pall bearers bear their burden at the cemetery. Every pall bearer is unnerved by how heavy any coffin is. Pittsburgh’s hilly cemeteries and frequent inclement weather render their burden even more daunting. As I lead the pall bearers to the grave, while reciting the traditional liturgy, I am quick to point out potential hazards: a muddy patch here, uneven ground there, or slippery artificial ground cover leading to the grave. Then comes their moment of truth when they must mount the planks on either side of the grave – the narrow flexible planks that spring under the weight of each step – in order to place their burden safely on the two narrow straps of the lowering device.
As the coffin is lowered, I recite the traditional Tziduk HaDin, Psalm 49, referring to God as a “Rock,” a poetic image as the coffin descends into the earth. I also watch the little bolt on the lowering device that spins around as the coffin descends. The little bolt stops spinning when the coffin comes to rest at the bottom of the grave. As I watch the bolt spin and then stop, I meditate on the simple yet profound fact that this human body had been in constant motion from the moment it was created at conception. Even after death it continued its unique journey to the funeral home, often to Temple and then to the cemetery. But having arrived now at the bottom of the grave, it has come to eternal rest. How appropriate that we identify this finale with “Rest in peace.”
I also observe a personal Shiva for your loved ones. For many of them, I had been praying for their healing daily for weeks, for months and sometimes for even years. I guesstimate that on any given day, I pray for fifty people or more, having memorized their names alphabetically. Memory then has no “delete” key. After people on my prayer list have died, force of habit keeps me reciting their name in the daily prayer for healing. Each time I do, the pain of their loss resurfaces. It generally takes me a week – Shiva – to remember to forget. Sometimes longer. And sometimes even after years, I remember a name during the prayer for healing that I had once prayed for years ago.
Moments of reflection such as this Shabbat evening demand an honest question. Could I have done better? The honest answer for me, and for everyone with at least a modicum of humility, is “Of course,” but I was always trying to do my best, to give my heart. However I thank you for making me feel that my best efforts were always more than good enough.
For your words of gratitude, I thank you. Given your grief, please know that I never counted on encomiums. Therefore I appreciated them all the more when you expressed them.
I thank you for your expressions of gratitude that my words in memory of your loved ones were indeed fitting tributes to their memory that you so cherish.
Everyone grieves differently, some effusively and emotionally, some stoically and privately. Sometimes it has been difficult for me to discern exactly how close I should come or how distant I should remain. If I erred in judgment, I thank you for your forgiveness.
No less is this true for dying as well as death. Sometimes I am greeted in the time leading up to death as a source of strength. Other times, I am spurned as death’s herald. Here too it has been difficult to discern which impact in particular I will have upon people, merely by my presence. Again, if I erred in judgment, I thank you for your forgiveness.
Sometimes your loved one’s funeral was quickly followed by someone else’s loved one’s funeral. Over the years, on average I’ve officiated at twenty-five funerals annually. Dying and death are never spread out smoothly at two or so per month. Often they have been preceded by vigils in the hospital, in hospice or in the home which also require my attention, to give my heart. If you understood these pastoral demands upon me, I thank you.
All funerals are sad, but some are tragic. These especially required me to give my heart. And such are the funerals that broke my heart. But they never shook my faith in God.
A final reflection….
When I was a young man first considering becoming a rabbi, I was inspired by several people, most of all by the rabbi who became my rabbinic mentor and who installed me here as Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in 1985, Rabbi Ely Pilchik of blessed memory. When I first met Rabbi Pilchik in 1972, among his many virtues, his eyes fascinated me. He had eyes like Albert Einstein: eyes that had seen eternity. I wanted to have those same eyes. I wanted to glimpse eternity. Little did I appreciate then exactly how one earns these eyes. Many decades later, I look at myself in the mirror, I see these eyes, and I understand what it has taken to earn them.
Indeed I have glimpsed eternity again and again:
Each time my phone has rung with the saddest of all possible news.
Each time we met thereafter and you’ve told me your loved one’s life story.
Each time I have written the eulogy honoring your loved one’s memory.
Each time I officiated at your loved one’s funeral.
Each time I have led the pall bearers with their heavy burden to the grave.
Each time I have watched that little bolt stop spinning.
Each time we tossed dirt into the grave.
Each time that we recited Kaddish together.
Each time that we have tried to make sense of life in light of death.
Each time that we pondered immortality’s unfathomable possibility measured against mortality’s inescapable reality.
I thank you for extending your hand and heart to me. I thank you for the trust you gave to me. I thank you for taking my hand. I thank you for touching my heart with yours.
One thought on “Officiating at Funerals”
Since I am out of town for three months, I was not able to be at services for your Thank You Shabbat this past Friday. I was so glad to read your sermon, as you have touched my family’s heart so many times, botvery sad times and very happy times. As I think back to my son’s funeral, which was many years ago, I remember it as if it was yesterday. We will observe Mark’s yahrzeit this Friday and remember his “ light which shined so brightly, but not long enough”. Thank you for always being there for my family and me.
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