Jewish Story about a Funeral


Jewish Story about a Funeral


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Opinion & Society

An Improved Funeral

By Martin Lindauer

Sam's voice thundered from an indefinite space above my bedroom ceiling. "You did the funeral wrong! I wanted a Jewish service, a fully Orthodox one, with all the kosher trimmings."

"But Sam," I cried out, not so much in shock from hearing my deceased lover as annoyed by his unreasonable demands. "How was I supposed to know you wanted a traditional religious service? Your Will was filled with detailed instructions on what to do with your books, lecture notes, reprints, and unfinished articles. Not a word about a funeral." Sam's Last Testament was typical: professorial, rational, and unspiritual. "I've lived with you long enough," I argued in my dream, "to know how much you hate institutionalized rituals. I remember you complaining at your mother's graveside, 'Religious mumbo-jumbo.' That's why I gave you a sectarian funeral."

"Ach," Sam grunted. "You could at least have included the Kaddish, the traditional prayer for the dead."

"I picked Psalm 27 because I know the words to 'The Lord is my shepherd.' Most Christians do."

"I suppose I should be thankful to you for reading something from the Bible," Sam fumed. "The service was more like a faculty meeting than a burial."

I smiled in my dream, imagining Sam popping up from his casket and making a motion to adjourn. I changed the subject to a topic I cared about. "Did you like the memorial service I put together at our apartment?"

"You call a photography exhibition a 'service?'" Sam sneered.

I had asked Sam's family to bring favorite photos of him and tacked them on the walls. I did resent, though, the ornately framed wedding picture brought by Ruth, Sam's former wife.

Sam broke into my sour recollection. "Who ever heard of a comedy club at such a serious event?"

"I wanted to lighten the somber mood," I explained. "I told your son Melvin to tell us about the time you let the water run over in the bathtub and asked your other son, Jeff, to repeat the story of when you forgot to...."

Sam interrupted with another complaint. "Was it also your idea to combine an academic conference with a musical soiree?"

"What's wrong with the Dean reading from your last article with your brother Al playing guitar in the background? It's a very technical publication and I thought the music would keep everyone awake."

Sam brushed aside my explanation with another gripe. "What kind of memorial service has an open-mike poetry reading?"

"I thought your daughter Beverly's poem about death and dying was lovely."

"Yeah, and my overweight colleagues were on the verge of an anxiety attack," Sam smirked.

I took a deep breath and waited for Sam to accuse me of ignoring Jewish customs because I was a shiksa, the first Jewish word Sam taught me after we met. What a strange dream, I thought in my sleep, but I understood why I was having it.

Sam's death three days ago was unexpected, especially after his doctor advised us that the operation was "routine." Immediately after his death I called his family, colleagues, friends, and the funeral director. I had learned enough about Judaism to know that the dead had to be buried within 24 hours. There wasn't enough time to make sure the arrangements were "kosher," one of the few Jewish words I knew before I lived with Sam. Oh, if only he had belonged to a synagogue. Then a Rabbi could have supervised and I would have felt more confident about the arrangements.

But whenever the subject of religion came up, Sam bellowed, "I've been an atheist all my life and I'm not going to change." That's why we kept postponing our marriage. Sam wanted a civil ceremony and I preferred a religious one but Sam pointed out that no Rabbi would marry us until I converted. Yet Sam wanted nothing to do with Rabbis and I wasn't satisfied with a notarized marriage certificate signed by a clerk at City Hall.

That's why I was having a dream about Sam. I wasn't sure if I had conducted the funeral in the right Jewish way.

"What is this 'real Jewish funeral' you're yakking about?" I barked, the rebuff muffled by my sleeping state. "When you were alive, you had only contempt for organized religion. You kept harping about Rabbis 'spouting sentimental platitudes.'"

"That's what I believed before I, uh, died," Sam roared from on high. "Now that I'm in the Hereafter, I want to be part of a thousand year old tradition. I need the rituals that join me with my people. My soul cries out for the proper rites. There are no Unitarians or Secular Humanists here."

"Where are you anyway?" I asked, curiosity overcoming my exasperation with Sam's unreasonable demands.

"That's the problem," Sam fumed. "I'm not sure if I'm 'up' or 'down,' or 'in-between." Oy, why didn't you do a standard Jewish funeral."

Sam's whining made me angry and I flipped over on my back, staring at the ceiling through closed eyes. "What right do you have to criticize me?" I shouted, the dream muting the shrillness of my accusation. Before Sam could answer, my curiosity returned. "Uh, Sam, are you wearing clothes? Do you have wings....?"

Sam stopped my interrogation. "Your questions are irrelevant!" he stormed. "My uncertain status in the afterlife has prompted the Authorities to permit me to speak to you. I am not here to gossip about styles of dress and modes of transportation in the Afterlife."

"All right, all right," I apologized. "What do you want me to do?"

"Have another funeral," Sam rumbled. "But this time make it more Jewish."

I tossed over on my stomach in annoyance. What did "more Jewish" mean? I appealed to Sam. "I don't think another funeral is possible, love. I'm sure it's written somewhere in both Jewish and civil law that a person is allowed only one funeral." Even if there were exceptions, I wasn't enthusiastic about repeating dozens of phone calls, informing 40 to 50 people again about another service for Sam, arranging a second burial, planning a duplicate Memorial Service, and hardest of all, being nice to Ruth, my predecessor.

My reluctance to supervise a second parting gave me the courage to argue with a potential angel, or at least a heavenly resident. "Another funeral would take a lot out of me, honey, especially after I just finished one. How would I explain such an unusual request to the funeral director? City Hall, I'm sure, won't issue a second death certificate. The Health Department must have strict rules about digging up people for reburial. The Dean will expect me to ask him to read from another impenetrable articles of yours. And Al will insist on accompanying him off-key. And there's still no Rabbi to ask for advice. I don't know if I can go to all that trouble again."

The complications of a second funeral, even if I were only dreaming, woke me up.

I thought about the dream all next day, looked forward to going to bed that night, and Sam telling me what "more Jewish" meant.

But he didn't reappear. I slept uneasily and dreamt about Sam discussing his return with Higher-Level Authorities, filling out forms that allowed him to sneak into my sleep, and being delayed by a bureaucratic snarl over the proper behavior between unmarried couples in a bedroom. Would I hear from Sam again? I wondered. Or did I have only a fleeting dream?

Sam reappeared the next night. "I've got it!" he boasted in my dream. "Here's what you have to do."

I was so surprised to hear from Sam that I woke up. I lay back on my pillow, snuggled under the covers, and willed myself to fall asleep. But not another word boomed from up high.

The days passed. So did the nights--without dreams. At least of Sam.

Perhaps they were real dreams, I told myself, and not messages from beyond. Dreaming of Sam, I tried to convince myself, was natural and understandable, a normal reaction after my sudden and unexpected loss.

Over the next few days, I masked my uneasiness by filling time with errands. I called the Dean, Al, Beverly and Sam's other children and thanked them for their contributions to the Memorial Service. I wrote notes of appreciation to Sam's relatives, friends, and colleagues for attending his funeral. I contacted Goodwill and scheduled a pick up of Sam's old clothes. I paid bills, took care of postponed tasks, and spent an exhausting afternoon at Social Security straightening out paperwork. I mailed the wedding portrait of Ruth and Sam back to his former wife.

I phoned Beverly, Sam's oldest daughter. "Have you had any strange dreams lately?"

"No, nothing special," she said after reflecting a moment. "Why do you ask?"

"No reason," I replied, and shifted to discussing when we could get together for lunch. I didn't want to tell Beverly about my dream, afraid she'd urge me to see a shrink "and complete the grieving process." We made an appointment to meet next week before I hung up.

I had to put the dream out of my mind. Otherwise, I'd keep waiting for Sam to come back with further instructions and I'd never have a good night's sleep again. It was my dream, after all, and I was the only one who could resolve it. I decided to do something "traditional," as Sam had urged.

The next day, I called the Forward, the English-language successor to the last Yiddish newspaper in New York City, the closest substitute I could think of for a Jewish publication, and asked for the obituary desk. The cooperative clerk helped me compose an announcement of Sam's death. She asked if Sam had been an official in his synagogue, a member of any Jewish organizations, or a contributor to Jewish causes, the typical filler materials of obituaries. I listed what I hoped were equivalents: Sam recruited high school students for college, tutored at the Boy's Club, wrote letters for the Peace Movement, and sent unwanted stamps from his collection to the Philately-For-Veterans club. The obituary turned out to be longer than the typical length but I didn't mind paying for the extra lines. I ordered a two-year's subscription to the weekly and had it sent to the library at Sam's college as a donation. I made a note to call the Dean and tell him the Forward belonged in the newspaper rack of the library and not on the ethnic periodicals shelf.

What else could I do that was "traditional?" I asked myself. I remembered a point made by the nice lady at the Forward and wrote several checks for $18, the numerical value of chai, the Hebrew word for "life." I sent one to the Hillel chapter at Sam's college, the club for Jewish students. Another $18 went to the city's only Mikvah, the ceremonial bath house for observant Jews. A third check was mailed to the United Jewish Appeal. A fourth chai went to the Hebrew Home. I looked up the addresses of synagogues under "Jewish Organizations" in the Yellow Pages and mailed more checks to the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform addresses. After some reflection, I tore up the check for "Jews For Jesus."

I called the Orthodox synagogue, the most traditional branch of Judaism, and spoke to the gabbai, the person in charge of ritual matters. After a confusing discussion of the meaning of "real Jewish" I ordered a bronze Memorial Tablet to be mounted on the wall of the Sanctuary. I instructed the gabbai to put Sam's English name on it, along with his Hebrew name, Shmuel, so that I could pick out his tablet.

The gabbai informed me of the Hebrew date on which to celebrate Sam's Yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death. "Add the English date next to the Hebrew one on his tablet," I instructed. Despite the additional cost, the addendum would remind me of Sam's Yahrzeit in secular time. To make sure I remembered the occasion, I asked the gabbai if there was a Jewish calendar. He said, "of course." I asked him to circle the day of his Yahrzeit, "If it's not too much trouble. Add the expense to my bill."

The gabbai was happy to oblige. "No charge. I'll also make a circle on the holidays when you're supposed to come to shul for Yizkor Services. Do you know the kaddish?" The gabbai didn't give me a chance to ask what shul or Yizkor meant--I already knew about the kaddish prayer from Sam's dream.

The religious official continued. "When you come to shul I'll show you the page in the Siddur where you can find the kaddish.."

I jotted a note to buy an English-Hebrew and English-Yiddish dictionary and look up Siddur and the other foreign words I had heard. I'd also ask at the book store if they had an English transliteration of the kaddish prayer.

The gabbai broke into my shopping plans. "It's also customary to make a donation."

"The check is in the mail," I told him truthfully. I didn't mention the other checks to his Conservative and Reform brethren.

"Would you be interested in joining the synagogue?" the gabbai asked. "I'll be happy to make an appointment for you with the Membership Committee. Once you're a member, you'll get regular reminders of your husband's Yahrziet."

I didn't correct his natural assumption about my marital status, afraid it would complicate matters. Membership would be expensive and I had already spent a great deal on the Memorial Tablet, the chai donations, the obituary in the newspaper, and the subscription to the Forward. I still had to buy two dictionaries. But the money was well spent. The costs, together with celebrating Sam's Yahrzeit, hanging a Hebrew calendar in the kitchen of the apartment, and learning the kaddish, would surely augment Sam's Jewish credentials.

Another way to confirm Sam's religious status sprang to mind. "Could you add the names of Sam's mother and father to the Memorial Tablet?" I asked the gabbai. "I only know their English names, though."

"Don't worry. I'll call them 'Abraham' and 'Sarah,'" the gabbai kindly offered. "But you'll need a bigger Tablet to fit all the names." I didn't haggle over the additional price.

The gabbai, grateful for my generosity, offered to give me a free 24-hour candle to light for Sam's Yahrzeit when I came to shul. "You can buy extra's at the gift shop along with a nice yarmulke to cover your head when you light it, but don't forget it's closed on Shabbos." Did the gabbai suspect my Jewish status because of the additions I made to the standard procedure? I thanked the gabbai and quickly said goodbye before he could ask any embarrassing questions.

I looked out the window at the sky. "I hope I've done enough for you, Sam," I whispered. I waited, hoping there might be some corroborating sign. "If you want more," I finally said, "get into my next dream."

Suddenly, I was struck by a sure way to enhance Sam's membership in the Tribe. I would call the gabbai again in a few weeks and ask about converting. Having become so knowledgeable about the ritual details of Jewish life that made Sam "more Jewish," I must have enhanced my own eligibility for joining the Covenant.


from the November 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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