I had a "first" last week. I went to a Jewish funeral. I had academic knowledge of Jewish funereal customs, but there's always a disconnect between knowing about something and actually doing it. Just ask anyone who is about 6 months out of seminary on their first call. "Gee, they never talked about this in seminary!" is a common refrain.
I had a patient who was in hospice care for just shy of two months who was Jewish. Now he and his wife (who was Christian) admitted that he wasn't a "very observant Jew." He participated in yahrzeit (the annual commemoration of the the death of a loved one), but that was about it. His sister and her husband were very observant - all of them belonged to Beth Shalom, the oldest synagogue in Frederick, Maryland.
I hadn't yet met the new rabbi at Beth Shalom but my patient assured me that the rabbi had visited him from time to time at the nursing home. This patient was open enough to allow me to be his chaplain and assist his prayers in ways which honored his Jewish heritage. During our time together, I supported both he and his wife with quiet presence and assurance.
Last Monday, I heard this patient had taken a turn over the weekend - he wasn't eating or drinking anymore and his weight was only 85 pounds (down from about 140). I called Beth Shalom to leave a message for the rabbi. Rabbi Murray Singerman called me back and we ended up meeting that afternoon with the patient's wife to discuss Jewish burial customs. It was a wonderful learning opportunity. Murray shared with us that the highest form of altruism in Judaism is to prepare a body for burial and bury the body. The community does this as an unselfish act - the dead cannot express their gratitude. I helped Murray make contact with the funeral home and made sure that our staff and the nursing home would not accidentally violate spiritual boundaries by bathing the body (which they would normally have done).
Murray prayed with our patient - in Hebrew and English. He recited Psalm 121 and said the Shema. He told us as we were leaving that the next day was Tisha B'av - a day of fasting and mourning. I wasn't familiar with this observance ... but I would learn about it quickly.
Our patient died in the middle of Tisha B'av ... right at the stroke of midnight! Tisha B'av is the day in the Jewish liturgical calendar which commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and in 70 CE by the Romans. Murray called it "the darkest night of the Jewish year." How ironic that the Almighty would call his "not-very-observant" son home in the middle of this dark night!
The funeral was scheduled for Thursday morning and I went to represent our hospice staff. Murray gave a wonderful homily which integrated the desolation of grief with the desecration of the temple. He also said that the Sabbaths which follow Tisha B'av are the Sabbaths of Consolation which will lead up to Rosh Hashannah. The Sabbaths of Consolation feature readings from the halftorah (the prophets) who speak the words of comfort promising the restoration of the Jewish people. This is also our consolation and promise in a journey of grief.
I went to the cemetery along with the family and Murray explained the Jewish traditions which we would observe. We would be burying the body - which comes as quite a shock to most Christians who have (unfortunately) had their burial rituals sanitized of this tradition. We processed to the grave and watched as the casket was lowered into the ground ... and just the ground ... no vault liners (Jews having been doing "green burials" long before it was fashionable). Murray explained that the first three shovels of dirt are put into the grave by the family using the back of the shovel. This symbolizes our reluctance in performing this act. Our patient's wife placed the first shovel of earth onto the casket and his immediate family followed. The rest of the mourners present, including me, also shoveled earth into the grave.
Once everyone had shoveled earth into the grave, we all sat down and Murray, with his sleeves rolled up in 90+ degree weather, kept on shoveling. He explained that we needed to cover the coffin. I realized that Murray, the deceased's nephew, and I were the only ones young enough and physically fit enough to shovel all that dirt. So I got up and grabbed a shovel and began filling in the grave. What a sight ... a priest and a rabbi shoveling away on a hot summer day to bury a good man!
The Jewish people speak of their ethical responsibility to repair the world. This is summed up in the words tikkun olam. I came away from this burial in awe that our Lord had provided this moment of grace where I could participate in a very holy moment. I believe taking care of the dying and dead and their loved ones is part of repairing the world.