Let's talk about funerals.
July 29, 2005
"Let's talk about funerals." That's what Jeff said to me yesterday afternoon, as we planned to meet as usual for meditation and Torah study this morning.
He's going on vacation tomorrow (I'll be serving as shaliach tzibbur, prayer leader, over the next two Shabbatot), and historically when he goes on vacation he asks one of the region's other rabbis to be on call in the event that a congregant dies. This time, I am on call instead.
It seems, on the one hand, eminently reasonable. I have officiated at baby-namings and weddings; some day I will need to learn the other side of the life-cycle coin. A while back, anticipating Jeff's 2006 sabbatical, we talked about this eventuality; that's why I'm doing my best to enroll in a CPE program this fall. When Jeff goes on sabbatical next winter, I hope to have some pastoral counseling under my belt. But his vacation is nearly upon us; there isn't time to gain new counseling skills now. Which is why this seems, on the proverbial other hand, a little overwhelming.
So this morning, we talked. He told me which congregant to call to set the funeral home and chevra kadisha wheels in motion. How to set up a meeting with the family, and what to say to them when we meet. How to walk them through the funeral day and what it will entail, how to prepare them for things which may be hard (seeing the casket, e.g., or the ride from the synagogue to the cemetary.) How to help them decide what kind of shivah they want to do. How to prompt them for personal stories to use in the hesped, the eulogy.
I have a copy of the CCAR Rabbi's Manual, which contains the funeral liturgy I would need. VirtualCantor.com has a recording of El Male Rachamim, the memorial prayer, which I can learn. But as Jeff ruefully reminded me, the funeral is the easy part. More difficult, and maybe more important, is the work of helping the family begin to move through their grief.
Last time we I talked about this was April, after my first experience on the chevra kadisha. We agreed that next time our community had a funeral, I would attend, to see what Jeff does and how he does it. Fortunately we've been lucky; there hasn't been a funeral since then.
It's entirely possible we will continue to be so; with God's help, there may be no deaths during Jeff's absence. Deus volent, inshallah, and kein yehi ratzon, I won't need to rise to this particular occasion now. But if someone does die, I will need to tap into the strength I find when I officiate at other, more joyous, life-cycle events; I will need to rise above my fears that I don't know what on earth I am doing, and be present for the family in their loss. If this situation does arise, I must live up to what the community needs me to be.
I know that some of my readers are clergy. How did you find what inner resources you needed to handle your first funeral?