Monday, March 23, 2009

Debi: How We Move On

It's interesting that Stori wrote about death in her last blog post, because I've been thinking for a week now about how to explain my strange experience with death last week.

My sister-in-law (David's sister) is married to one of the gentlest people I've ever met. His grandfather passed away just over a week ago, and though David and I had only ever met him once or twice, we went to the funeral just to be supportive of his sister and brother-in-law. This grandfather was well into his 90s, and it was a merciful end to what seemed to be a full life. In our years together, David and I have attended several funerals for people of similar age -- his grandfather, his grandmothers, and other extended family -- and so I thought I was prepared for the experience of celebrating a long life, comforting the grieving family, and looking to the future.

I forgot, however, that I've really only ever been to Jewish funerals.

We are Jewish, and the funeral and mourning experience is fairly proscribed for us. In Jewish tradition, the dead are buried quickly after death, since we don't use any preservative materials. While the immediate family is offered the opportunity to view the body, the casket is never open at the funeral. There is usually a short service in a funeral parlor chapel, and then the graveside service includes giving all attendees the opportunity to watch the casket lowered and then throw several shovels full of dirt into the grave. This is considered to be a great good deed -- known as a "mitzvah" -- and forces those who participate a true moment of closure. After this service, there are several other rituals that take place at the home of the immediate mourning family. There is hand washing outside the house, and the covering of mirrors in the house, and seven official days of mourning, where the family is cared for by the community. The focus for the mourners is on remembering the life of the departed loved one, being inspired by his or her gifts, and settling in to be loved and comforted by others while reality sets in.

Well, that's not how it went down for my brother-in-law's grandfather's funeral.

The service at the funeral parlor was largely the same as others I've attended; a family friend who is a practicing pastor talked about the departed, offered a prayer, and instructed those attending on how to get to the cemetary. That's when things became quite foreign for me. At the graveside service, the pastor began talking about what I can only imagine is what I hear referred to as the "end times." He talked about what would happen when Christ comes back, and how he would bring my brother-in-law's grandfather with him, and that only those who had accepted Christ into their hearts would see Grandpa again. Then the pastor asked all those in attendance to close their eyes and repeat the vow he recited (out loud or in their heads), a vow that he accepted Christ as his savior, that he believed in everything the Bible said, that the only truth in the world was written in the Bible, and that his heart was full of belief that Christ would rise again and bring the dearly departed believers with him. At the end of his vow, he told everyone that if they had said that vow, they would see Grandpa again. If they didn't, then this was truly goodbye forever.

David and I raised our eyebrows at each other from our place at the far back of the crowd. My sister-in-law is Jewish too, and loved her husband's grandfather very much. I was hurt on her behalf, but of course, there's nothing to be gained from saying anything about it to anyone involved. It would be horrible timing anyway, not to mention useless. After the service, everyone went their own way; some family went back to his grandmother's house, but we went out to lunch at a restaurant with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, my mother-in-law, and some friends.

It was such an enlightening day for me, to realize this key difference between the way my tradition views the end of life on earth and the way that -- according to a friend of mine who is a pastor -- the majority Christians perceive it. We say goodbye, throwing the dirt on the grave and giving ourselves a week to really think about it. It's over and done with, then, since we don't have any truly conclusive set of religious beliefs about an afterlife. My brother-in-law's family, if they are believers as their pastors hope, are not really saying goodbye. They have hope that they will be reunited, and I imagine that is deeply comforting as well.

What does this have to do with being a City Mouse? I got to see something totally outside my personal experience last week. My sister-in-law married someone from a family completely different from hers and mine, bringing a new set of traditions and outlooks into the lives of the people around her. In a city/suburb/exurb so diverse and vast, this kind of thing happens a lot. For that, I am grateful.

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