Saying Farewell

Today I walked into my neighborhood Catholic Church to attend the funeral mass of a family with multiple points of connection with my own.  The only other time I’d attended a mass was during college with my Irish girlfriend, but this was a vastly different affair from that low-key service in a non-denominational chapel.  This was a service with an organ, both male and female soloists, and incense, which caused some non-Catholics to cough but I was fine because I had been responsible for lighting the incense for the family altar as a girl.  All this was in a devotional space with stained glass windows, a vaulted ceiling, and numerous statuaries.  The combination of organ music, superb vocals, and fine acoustics is spine-thrillingly exquisite.

An unusual aspect of this funeral was the decision of the deceased to be cremated, so a simple wooden box with her ashes was on display, but which I was not cognizant until the recessional in which the son carried out her box of ashes.  After a few weeks at home, her ashes will be buried in Valley Forge to join other members of her family, which dates from the American Revolution.

This was a funeral in which the only personal reference to the deceased was that she was the only girl in a family with six sons and that she sang.  There were no eulogies, with her husband reading two selections from the New Testament.  There was a partaking of the Communion wafer in which the grieving husband and son and ready members of the Catholic community participated  (some accepted this by mouth from the Monsignor’s hand, others accepted it in cupped hands).  Afterwards, the family lead a procession to their nearby home, where refreshments were offered to the visitors.

This was so different from the Jewish funeral and shivah rituals as well as the Buddhist funeral I’d attended for my grandmother.  Jews love to talk, so their eulogies can be lengthy and emotional, but everyone gets to hear details from the deceased’s life.  I guess Catholics focus on the afterlife, not the life on Earth.  Buddhist funerals are also relatively quiet, with silent rituals expected from the male children and grandchildren.

The grieving process is very detailed and prescribed for observant Jews.  For a period of a week, they neither work nor serve themselves, letting members of the community tend to them and show loving compassion.  I’m told that the shivah period is crucial for coming to grips with the death; a friend reported  that her non-observant siblings did not cope as well as she did, attributing her resilience to her observance of shivah.  Then for the next 11 months, a mourner recites Kaddish, the tefillah (prayer) of words of praise for God, and not a reminder of the human loss.  I’ve read that this focuses the mourner to the life here, one that may be bereft of a loved one but that we’re still here by the grace of God.

After my grandmother’s funeral, I asked my Rabbi if I may recite Kaddish for my parents when they die (as I’m a convert to Judaism).  He said yes, but he asked if there was another way to honor my parents, who would be bewildered by a ritual foreign to them.  This reminded me that funerals and mourning rituals are as much for the mourners as for the deceased.  Since then I’ve told my husband that upon my death, he and our girls may mourn me as they wish and dispose of my treasures as they see fit.  Our diverse religious customs help us manage our grief and steer us to life anew.

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