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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A welcome distraction

Yesterday was a difficult day.

One of our closest friends from the US landed here yesterday with her mother.  This wasn't a family vacation.  You see, our friend and her siblings were bringing their mother's body to Israel to be buried next to their father - not yet 6 months in his own grave.

Losing a parent is never easy... but it was just this past March that we gathered for her father's funeral!  How does a family come unraveled so quickly?  I simply can't imagine the unspeakable heartbreak of losing two parents in such a short period of time.

I have written before about the stark differences between Israeli and American funeral practices.  Simply put, everything about an American funeral is designed to allow the mourners to avoid direct contact with mortality.  The whole process simply hints at death or makes oblique references to it.  But the mourners are never really confronted by the reality of death.  The funeral chapels are tastefully decorated and the deceased is discreetly hidden from view. 

In Israel, the funeral chapel is as spartan as the grave... and the mourners are forced to confront the stark reality of death when their loved one is carried in on a stretcher wrapped in white shrouds.  There is no metaphor for death in Israel... and nobody leaves an Israeli funeral without contemplating their own mortality. 

In old movies it was not uncommon to see a hysterical person receive a bracing slap across the face followed by a stern command to "pull yourself together".   An Israeli funeral provides both the raw emotion  of hysterics... and the emotional equivalent of a slap in the face.

As we sat in the small chapel, or 'Beit Hesped' (eulogy house) as it is called in Hebrew, listening to the emotional tribute of the departed woman's grandson, all I could think of was to thank G-d over and over for the gift of my two healthy (insert every possible superstitious word, noise and gesture to ward off the evil eye!!!), parents.... may I never commit the sin of taking the gift of their presence for granted.

I have attended far too many funerals in the past two years.  At each one I pray that I will grow a protective callous on my heart... or that I will at least become accustomed to the process.  But each funeral is just as painful as the last.

At times of stress the human mind tends to cast about for something... anything... to distract it from confronting things that are emotionally painful.  I honestly think the only thing that got me through yesterday's funeral was the distraction of a hugely unfortunate design flaw in the interior of the chapel. 

The absurdity of the accidental arrangement of windows and words on the wall behind where the body lay provided just a tiny distraction.  But it was enough.

I'm sure that the family was so immersed in their own grief that they were oblivious to the unfortunate 'smiley face' looking down upon the gathered mourners.  But if I ever meet the person who designed the interior of this particular Beit Hesped, I will thank him/her for the inadvertent, but welcome distraction that allowed me get through an otherwise unbearable funeral.


May these recent orphans be comforted among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.

[Note: This picture was taken long after the burial had been completed]


Posted by David Bogner on July 27, 2005 | Permalink


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Woah look at that!!! That is really funny.

Posted by: Fran | Jul 27, 2005 2:20:23 PM

I think it's appropriate for your post that the verse quoted on the wall is the source for the Rabbis statement that Eretz Yisrael is Eretz HaChaim (the Land of Israel is the Land of the Living.)

For only when we really contemplate death can we appreciate life.

Posted by: Dave | Jul 27, 2005 2:22:47 PM

What an unfortunate accident of design!

It must have happened to help you get through this particular funeral! Long term planning!

May we never have to attend any more sad events.

Posted by: Frummer? | Jul 27, 2005 3:17:20 PM

I was getting a little teary, reading this beautiful post. But as soon as I saw that picture I had to laugh out loud. May the family be comforted...

Posted by: Essie | Jul 27, 2005 3:51:40 PM


It's fascinating what the eye can see...or not.

I'm glad that at this unpleasant time, you & Zahava got to share a smile.

I recently heard a story told about one of the two shuls I belong to; when the the shul was first completed, one of the building-committee members was looking at the sanctuary from the inside and saw that the window layout design had the formation of a cross! That windowed wall was very quickly redesigned. I don't think a cross would have gone over very well in an Orthodox minyan! (but then again, I know of a famous Toronto church that houses stained-glass windows whose designs offer up a "magen David"; I noticed them from the building's exterior. Go figure...!)

Posted by: Pearl | Jul 27, 2005 4:18:00 PM

Creepy! Especially the pointy nose.

I think you just wrote a great premise for a "Twilight Zone" episode.

In my nightmares the words will keep changing...

Have a much much better Thursday.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Jul 27, 2005 4:23:29 PM

I can't imagine losing one's parents (notice careful distancing mechanism). Though it is surely less horrific that losing one's children. All this death business is so tiring, and sadly it is only beginning.

I for one am very grateful that secular Jews bury their dead in a coffin, at least there won't be any dreaming abt outlines or thinking they can't breathe, which I do whenever I see a shroud.

Here in Portugal you have the open coffin and people will come up to it and unveil the dead's face and look at it, and sometimes say things like "The poor thing, she looks so ugly..." I'd much rather have the American way, down to the reception afterwards, which is both mourning and celebratory. And don't get me started on the wake, you don't love the dead unless you stay up all night and add even more to pre-existing suffering.

All in all, I simply wish people wouldn't die, or that we'd feel different abt it. I'm sorry abt your friend's mum and dad.

(sorry abt the double post, there was a typo. Can you delete previous one?)

Posted by: Lioness | Jul 27, 2005 5:16:15 PM

Your point about avoiding death, even at funeral services, is well taken.

In Canada, funeral services among Protestant Christians used to include a trip to the cemetery. That was the most gut-wrenching moment: watching them lower the casket into the grave, followed by the first (ceremonial) shovel of dirt.

Now the casket is carried only as far as the funeral hearse. Then it is driven away, like someone leaving on a vacation, and the mourners go to a reception.

The trip to the cemetery has become the exception, rather than the rule. And I think it's precisely because of its gut-wrenching effect. Too real; we can't be expected to cope with that.

Posted by: Q | Jul 27, 2005 5:22:54 PM

On July 21st my father celebrated the one year anniversary of his triple bypass and on July 23rd we celebrated my daughter's first birthday.

I have spent many hours giving thanks for my father's life. It was a six month ordeal and there were several occasions on which we we were warned not to expect him to make it.

It is one thing to lose a grandparent quite another to lose a parent. The one lesson that was proven to me is the old cliche about making certain to tell the people you love that you love them because you just don't know what can happen.

Posted by: Jack | Jul 27, 2005 5:23:08 PM

I, too, had buried my father in Israel, and although I won't go into any details, besides for the obvious reasons, it was one of the worse and disrespectful experiences that I ever had to encounter. Like you, I did find solace and even humor during the burial. I even started laughing out loud during several times through out it. No, I wasn't being rude, I was just imagining my father there next to me, laughing along with me and relating this to one of our favorite Pink Panther scenes.

Posted by: Jaime | Jul 27, 2005 5:50:45 PM

Wow, that is ironic.

Posted by: Chavi | Jul 27, 2005 5:51:57 PM

I know whom you are referring to and the saddest thing is that this family just buried a 6 year old niece 2 months ago as well. May they all be comforted during this hard year.

Posted by: peninah | Jul 27, 2005 5:54:23 PM

What a mournful post during a mournful period. I fortunately have not been to many funerals in my time and hopefully both you and I will only be playing or be guests at simchas in the future. That picture is most bizarre and as usual you bring us these interesting moments.

Posted by: Jewish Blogmiester | Jul 27, 2005 6:32:48 PM

Fran... Well, maybe not funny, but a welcome distraction none-the-less.

Dave... I hadn't thought about that. Nice...thanks.

Frummer... I wonder if I'm the only one to have noticed this. I tend to doubt it.

Essie... If it hadn't been for the odd arrangement of windows and words I probably wouldn't have posted about this other than the brief mention in yesterday's comments. I feel like I've had far more negative stuff here on treppenwitz than positive. I know it's my blog and I can say anything I want... but I realize people have their limits when it comes to bad news.

Pearl.. Are you sure the church wasn't once a synagogue? There are plenty of those around.

Doctor Bean... Thanks. I'm looking forward to the weekend.

Lioness... "All in all, I simply wish people wouldn't die" I sort of agree. I want to to be 119, so when I die they will still be able to say "He dies before his time." :-)

Q... There are so many rituals in Judaism that force those who are mourning to step out of their normal routine and confront their loss directly. The seven days of forced mourning in the house... followed by the remainder of 30 days with modified mourning... until almost a year when mourning is finished. I haven't read anything on the subject, but psychologically it seems to make more sense than pretending death is something other than what it is.

Jack... I hope you have many, many more opportunities to remind him of your feelings.

Jaime... I'm surprised to hear that you thought the experience was disrespectful. May I ask in what way? Did you feel it was disrespectful to the deceased or to some or all of the mourners? My experience is that the Chevre Kadisha (burial society) tends to be extremely respectful of the deceased... but are very occasionally less sensitive to the feelings of female mourners.

Chavi... No, like the black fly in Alanis' Chardonnay, it isn't really ironic... it's just odd. :-)

Penina... I can only hope that the family have only happy occasions to come together in the future. These are wonderful people and it pains me to no end to see them gather for funerals.

Jewish Blogmiester... I hesitated an extra couple of hours before allowing this journal entry to publish. I was worried that some people (especially the members of the family who lost their mother) might think it disrespectful to post a picture that is odd, bordering on funny. I was worried that they might think I was poking fun at in insensitive time. But it could have just as easily been someone fainting... a young child misbehaving... or a car alarm going off that provided the distraction. The point of the post was not just about the odd picture... but rather about how that odd picture took away some of my distress and allowed me to gain some necessary distance.

Posted by: David | Jul 27, 2005 11:34:02 PM

I have a friend who doesn't go to funerals. It doesn't matter how close: she didn't even attend that of her 24 year old nephew this past year. (Has her sister, the young man's mother, forgiven her? Does she see this as acceptable? I don't know.)

She says she's "not good with funerals", or, alternately, she "hates them". When she shared this last with me, I noted that, gee, everyone else I know just loves them... My further remonstrances that it's appropriate and necessary to feel that way, to thoroughly grieve, and move through it, was lost on her. She just doesn't "do" funerals. I am appalled.

The sad thing is, she's not alone. Although I don't know many others of her age (44) with this attitude, I do know a number of younger folk who simply refuse to go. The cowardice, selfishness, and lack of compassion for the family this displays takes my breath away. And, beyond all those, I believe that facing your own mortality, your grief, your loss head-on is, to put it in barest terms, good for you. Far better than to pretend nothing bad has happened, nothing has been lost.

It's all part of being a grown-up, something that our increasingly adolescent North American society is trying harder and harder to avoid.

Posted by: Mary | Jul 28, 2005 12:23:13 AM

I was under the impression that non-casket funerals were the domain of Jerusalem, but elsewhere in Israel caskets are used.

Also, I'm not sure that "American" funerals necessarily avoid death. Many non-Jewish (and, let's face it, many non-orthodox-Jewish) funerals are open-casket. You could make the argument that this, too, avoids death in a way, since the deceased is so finely "preserved." Either way, it's pretty creepy.

Posted by: Ralphie | Jul 28, 2005 1:15:22 AM

My father's death was unexpected and my siblings and I were in the States when it happen. When we flew to Israel, we only had a few days to figure out what to do (mind you, I was a teenager at the time.) We never had a service for him in a 'Beit Hesped', never knew one even existed. The men who were responsible for burying my father wanted my brother to say a prayer but with his lack of knowledge and emotional state, he just couldn't do it. Yelling at him, they kept insisting that he do it. On top of that, my father was 6'2, and the opening in which my father was supposed to be put into was too small. So instead of digging it longer, they started yelling at each other and then kept trying to shove him into the grave that was too small, in and out, back and forth. The Israeli women who were in attendance were furious at them for treating his body with such disrespect and so even more yelling continue. To top it off, unfortunately for us the burial was right before sundown of Succot and they were in a hurry to finish and get home before sundown. So here are, in shock, in mourning, with these men yelling back and forth with each other, to the women, to my brother, pushing and pulling my poor father's body. That's when I lost it and started to laugh hysterically. It was such a comedy of errors. To have witness seeing your love one wrapped up in clothes instead of a casket is hard enough, but then to have that type of experience, with men who lacked compassion but yet was so worried about having to get home in order to not break any laws...well, enuf said.

Mary...not sure if your friend has ever been to a funeral before, but I feel that same way as she does (and I am in my 30's). My husband, feels like you do, and is appalled at my "selfishness" but having attended two funerals at very early ages, I would rather offer my condolescences in a differnce way. It's not right to pass judgement on a very personal decision.

Posted by: Jaime | Jul 28, 2005 2:13:49 AM


Many churches happen to be shul buildings that were bought when the shuls had to close for various reasons. The magen david in the window was probably put there intentionally originally.

Posted by: Ed | Jul 28, 2005 5:17:51 AM

I wrote a post not too long ago about finding humor in difficult times, and yours seemed to resonate.

Jewish funerary practices are the most humane and rational that I know of. The dignity of the deceased is preserved; the anguish of the bereaved is acknowledged and gently soothed over time. And at the end of the service, as the mourners shovel dirt into the grave, it is the last mitzvah we can do for the dead: tucking them in, as it were, for their forever sleep.

Thanks for another excellent blogpost.

Posted by: Elisson | Jul 28, 2005 6:34:38 AM

Mary... The story about your friend is far from unique. Many people deliberately insulate themselves from things that they are afraid of. People who are afraid of dogs arrange their lives in such a way that they never come in contact with them. Death is the dog of which we are all afraid... and some people simply refuse to be in close proximity to it. While I don't think this is particularly healthy, it is a personal choice that each person makes for him/herself.

Ralphie... I have been to funerals in Beer Sheva in the south and Karnei Shomron in the north... as well as several in and around Jerusalem. I know that military burials often include a coffin, but I have not seen one at any of the burials that I have attended. As to the point about 'American style' open casket funerals... such extensive efforts are taken to make the deceased appear to be asleep rather than dead that I think it enables denial more than acceptance. Seeing the outline of the body wrapped in shrouds may be creepy, but it doesn't allow one to avoid the reality/finality of death.

Jaime... Your story is heartbreaking. You must be a very special person to be able to laugh at such a trying time. The disrespect the burial society showed your father was inexcusable and there is no possible way to rationalize it. However the added stress of what happened to your brother is something I have seen once before here. Israelis are not accustomed to dealing with people who do not read Hebrew. Even secular Israelis can be handed a card with the Hebrew and Aramaic prayers and can muddle through their obligations without too much trouble. In the US the funeral chapels and burial societies are well equipped with transliterated material because it is quite common for mourners to lack fluency with Hebrew. None of this explains yelling or disrespect... and I am deeply sorry that you had such a terrible experience at such a delicate time. But I think you had the misfortune to be the exception rather than the rule of how things usually happen here.

Ed... My guess too.

Elisson... My wife's family has a tradition of only allowing family members to fill in the grave. When we buried her mother in Florida it was hard work to completely fill in the grave... but in the end everyone felt as though they had personally done as you described. While the act of burying someone is considered a completely selfless act (Hesed shel emet) because the person can never thank or repay you... there is tremendous satisfaction being able to perform that kindness, and it gives people a closure they would never otherwise have.

Posted by: David | Jul 28, 2005 9:02:11 AM

When our firstborn child died several years ago, it was less than a year after we buried my husband's mother, who had succumbed to cancer. Despite the overwhelming grief, I took comfort in knowing that grandmother and grandson would be together, and that neither would have to be alone. I thought of this when reading about your friend having to bury her parents within six months of each other, that despite the sadness here on earth, these two people who had been forceably separated could now be together again, forever.

With regard to finding humor in even the most tragic of circumstances, well, it seems to me that humor and tragedy do not have to be mutually exclusive. Our family has known much tragedy, and the one thing that has kept me sane and kept me going is my sense of humor, even after the loss of our son. When my grandmother passed away many years ago, it was decided that I wouldn't fly in from Israel, and instead, I sent a eulogy to be read out loud. I made sure to include some of the funnier stories that I remembered, and received wonderful feedback from many members of the family, as it allowed them to remember happier times.

Posted by: She | Jul 28, 2005 9:37:21 AM

I think it would be more correct to state that open-casket funerals in the US go to extensive efforts to make the deceased look at peace rather than asleep. My experience when attending the funerals of family members to whom I have had to say my last goodbye was not one of avoiding death or mortality. At a catholic wake in the US, the casket is open and each person in attendance approaches the casket, kneels on a kneeler in front of it. When we buried my grandmother in 1998, I touched her face and hands and hair, something I needed to do to one last time. I had moved abroad a year earlier and came home for a visit 1 1/2 hours before her death. Enough time to say goodnight and I love you, but not enough to have the contact that I so desperately missed while away. The contact with her body (no longer warm as I always knew it to be, but rather cold and so obviously without life) was, without question, the equivalent of an emotional fist in my stomach. The traditions may be very different, but I think that the emotional reactions can be surprisingly similar. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your friends.

Posted by: nrg | Jul 28, 2005 12:29:09 PM

She... Your story about writing a eulogy sprinkled with fond, and funny memories made me think about the eulogy I delivered at my Grandma Fay's funeral. She lived her life so completely on her own terms that it would have been a travesty to trot out the typical platitudes that people use when speaking about the dead. She was a pistol... and we all had a good laugh through our tears as we stood in that bitter cold New England cemetery saying our goodbyes. I'm glad to hear that when you sat down to write your tribute... you had the wisdom to celebrate your grandmother's life instead of simply marking her death.

NRG... I won't argue over the difference between 'life-like' and 'at peace'. Both are things other than 'dead'. You were very fortunate to have had that one last chance to say goodbye and express your love... but the point of the grieving process is to stress that no matter when a person goes... it is too soon. Being offered a second chance to look at her face or touch her cheek may have been comforting to you... but it simply delayed the beginning of the grieving process by a few hours. Your way is no better or worse than mine... it is simply the difference (IMHO) between pulling the band-aid off fast or slow. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

Posted by: David | Jul 28, 2005 2:57:49 PM

About the Magen David in odd places... I saw that in several places in Spain. The first was on the roof of an important church in Valencia, on the outside. I immediately thought it had been a synagogue a long time before. I have a picture somewhere. And later I saw a lot of Magen Davids in different places (not only churches) in Sevilla, where the Jewish population flourished centuries ago. They seemed to be part of the decoration in many ancient buildings. What surprised me most is that they hadn't been removed during the so many years of rampant antisemitism that followed.

I'm one of those who doesn't go to funerals. I attended several at a very young age, of very dear people, including my father's when I was fifteen, and I can't take any more.

Posted by: Sandra | Jul 28, 2005 3:01:57 PM

David, I'm not sure that having to confront it directly right away is better. That is, personally, I don't want to see faces. I don't need to touch a cold body. I certainly don't need to see the coffin being lowered into the ground and, least of all, hear the dirt hit it. I'd much prefer to skip all of that, closed casket, prayer, go to reception. Death catches up w us and we do mourn, regardless of how or when it's done. And sometimes denial helps tremendously bcs it gives you time to do some processing you're not aware of doing in the recesses of your mind. Rituals are terribly important but I wish we could choose those that actually make those first days easier. Am not so happy with Judaism or (Catholicism for the matter) in that respect.

Posted by: Lioness | Jul 28, 2005 3:25:40 PM

Sandra... I can't explain that any more than I can explain the popularity of Yiddish theater/culture in Poland... a country that did everything in it's power to help the Nazi's destroy European Jewry. Maybe once the Jews are gone there remains some kind of nostalgia for things the Jews left behind. Who knows.

Lioness... Like I said, it boils down to whether it is best to pull off the bandage fast or slow. The only good thing in this discussion is that nobody has to be 'right'. We all confront (or avoid) death in our own way... until we get to the jumping-off point ourselves.

Posted by: David | Jul 28, 2005 3:45:05 PM

C'mon, that was a care package sent to DB right from the Big Guy, speedy delivery. Great post.

Posted by: Alice | Jul 28, 2005 4:32:34 PM

Alice... Thanks. I doubt the 'Big Guy' took time out form His busy schedule to distract me during a funeral... but I don't discount the possibility of some divine inspiration on the part of the interior designer.

Posted by: David | Jul 28, 2005 4:43:55 PM

The customs and procedure of burying someone is dramatically different in Israel as opposed to America. Last summer, my daughter passed away. We decided to bury her in Har Manuchos. When they put the body into the ground, I passed out, being that there wasn't a coffin. it took them some time to awaken me. By the time I woke up, they had finished shoveling the dirt. It is interesting that at the shiva house of someone who is secular, people tend to talk about anything besides the person who passed away. This is in stark contrast to what is supposed to happen. The shiva is a time to mourn and remember the one who passed away. As far as humour, bereaved parents, myself included, use humor to keep sane. Sometimes, we might seem insincere or crude but we need to laugh so we can keep from crying.
May we only know from Simchas.

Posted by: glen | Aug 1, 2005 3:14:11 AM

Glen... I went to your blog and was very moved by what you have written so far (and by what a special person your daughter was). I know it is little comfort to you now, but you were very lucky to have had such a wonderful person in your life for almost 11 years. It is simply a shame that she did not have the time or opportunity to share her specialness with more of the world.

It's things like this that make you hope desperately that things happen according to a plan... because to lose something so precious due to pure randomness would be unbearable.

The belief in a divine plan is what makes our life's tragedies bearable. It may be 'chutzpadik', but when my time comes to stand before the supreme judge... I will be asking a few questions of my own.

Posted by: David | Aug 1, 2005 9:25:14 AM

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