My Daddy died in 1978. I loved him, and it broke my heart when he died. But it was a very long time ago, and I only have a couple of really clear memories of what happened the day of his funeral.
One is this.
I remember standing with my sister on the steps of the funeral home. We should have been walking in. Instead we were having a violent argument with the rest of Daddy’s family (he was my step-father and my sister’s father).
My sister and I had decided we wanted to remember our father as he had been when he was alive. We didn’t want to see his body. That shell wasn’t him.
We had already agreed to a viewing with an open casket before the ceremony, but the casket was to be a closed during the funeral. The rest of his family didn’t want it that way. There were apparently people who couldn’t make it to the viewing, and they wanted the casket to stay open.
We refused. I refused. My sister was barely in her 20s at the time. And my mother and my Daddy were divorced, so she had left it all to us. I’m sure it was mostly me who stood up to them.
I remember how angry I was that they would do this right then, as we were walking in to our Daddy’s funeral. And I was right. They shouldn’t have ambushed us that way. But I was also wrong. Looking back on it now, I can see that I still had that young, self righteous, “I know everything, why should I ask anybody anything” attitude.
As his closest immediate family, my sister and I had planned the funeral. And I realize now, we should have included his brothers and sisters more. Even though none of them had ever been that close to me, who had been part of their family since I was six, or even to my sister, who was part of their family period. We had only drifted further apart once my Daddy and my mother divorced. And, truthfully, they weren’t very nice people. There are family stories I won’t get into here proving that. Still… they were his family.
But even with the perspective of years, I do not regret having refused to have an open casket. Mostly because I have continued to be of the opinion that funerals, especially Christian funerals, are barbaric (may my Christian friends forgive me).
Jews, at least, bury as soon as possible after death: the next day if they can. Christians wait… long enough for people to begin to heal… and then the funeral happens. The scab is ripped off the wound, and day one of the pain starts all over again.
Forty years later, the image of standing on those steps, trying not to break down and cry in front of those uncaring folks in my own family, is still fresh in my mind. Not only because of the anger, but because of the depth of the pain I, and my sister, were feeling then.
Happily I haven’t been to many funerals since then. And none where the family dynamics caused such a scene or so much public anguish.
But… I did just attend a funeral, for the friend’s mother whose death I wrote about earlier.
My friend’s family is Christian: Greek Orthodox.
I decided to go to the funeral as soon as he sent me a text with the information, because… well… because I know he loved his mother. And, even after all these years, I can still remember what the loss of a parent feels like. I still cry every year when I recite Kaddish. Nothing makes that go away… ever… but the support of your family, and your friends, help you know that somehow you’ll get through it. That there is something on the other side of all that pain.
Making the decision to go wasn’t even hard, although it probably should have been. I am a Jew, after all. And Jews aren’t supposed to go into churches.
I felt sure G-d was OK with it, although I knew what my Rav would say to me if I’d discussed my intention with him. That G-d will lead us in the way we want to go, even if it isn’t the way we should go. It’s entirely possible this is true. I admit I don’t know whether it is or not. But in this case, it didn’t matter. I simply didn’t discuss it with him. It isn’t that I don’t care what he thinks, or that I don’t respect him. I do very much. It’s just I was certain this was something I wanted to do… that I had to do. And since I *was* going to do it anyway, why get into it?
Beyond the connection I think G-d has set up between me and this particular friend, there is the whole friend issue in general. If you were not born Jewish, and you have friends, old friends, good friends, who are not Jewish, how do you continue to relate to them after you do convert?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this.
I decided that my friends were still my friends, and that their feelings were more important to me than just about anything else. I know some Jews… some converts… don’t feel this way. But I didn’t become a Jew so that I could reject, or hurt, or insult people who’ve known me and stood by me, in good times and bad, my whole life.
If I have to suffer for this someday, when I stand before G-d in the World to Come, then I will have to. If I have to come back to this world to work that out before I can be released from the cycle of death and re-birth, then I will have to do that too.
But right now, in this lifetime, this is how I feel. And, in the decade since I converted, it is perhaps the one thing I haven’t changed my mind about.
And after having survived visiting a Protestant church a couple of weeks ago (to observe a memorial service I’d been asked to write about) I was pretty sure I wouldn’t burst into flames when I entered this church either.
Still… knowing that I was going to do this meant that I was kind of a mess when I woke up.
First, of course, there was the obstacle of getting dressed. Being a Jewish woman, I have *lots* of black clothing, but there was much dithering as I tried to decide if I should wear a sweater… or maybe a jacket would be better? Should I add something with a little color or not? How much black was too much black?
In other words, I was making myself crazy because I was so uncomfortable about going. I was certain there was zero chance this family would behave as weirdly as mine had all those years ago, but that incident was a shadow in the back of my mind.
And second, did I mention insecure introvert being around lots of strangers? Lots being more than two. And two, in this case, is the number of people I would actually know at this funeral.
Anyway, finally I just pulled myself together and walked out the door. I was even on time getting to the church. And being on time is not my best thing, goodness knows.
The church building, although large, didn’t look that impressive when I first pulled up. But it did have a whole lot of doors.
I sat in my car and waited for someone to follow so I could figure out which one of all those doors I should go into. Just as I was about to get out of my car because I thought I’d found someone to follow, two extremely long black cars pulled up right in front of where I was parked. Oh my.
It turned out I had come just in time to watch the casket arrive, and to see the pallbearers, including my friend of course, escort it into the church. Oh. My.
I walked over and stopped, off to the side and just inside the first set of doors leading into the church. I watched as the casket was rolled further inside. I watched other people walk in. I watched people light candles.
There was a guest book to be signed, so I did do that. I was, foolishly I know, a little bit worried that my friend might not notice that I’d come – the one little black woman, in what turned out to be a really big crowd. The priest, I guess he is properly called, said the church was so full it was like Easter, which likely equates to the size of High Holiday crowds for us.
There was also a little card next to the guest book, with my friend’s mother’s name, and a little comforting saying on it. At first, it seemed like a strange idea… almost like the dead comforting the living. But, on reflection, maybe it was not so strange. Because who is it that is still in pain?
I finally worked up my courage, and walked forward through the second set of doors into the main sanctuary. I again paused, off to the side and just inside. OH. MY.
It might not have looked impressive outside, but inside? It was huge, with high beamed ceilings, and a domed vault with, naturally, an image of JC painted up there. Lots of beautiful, leaded windows filled the room with light. It wasn’t until later, when the priest mentioned it, that I realized the room was built in the shape of a cross.
As I sat quietly and checked out the architecture, most of the people around me made the sign of the cross as they entered. I was not comfortable in this place. And since I truly believe, all gods are one G-d, I wasn’t entirely sure why. Was it because this wasn’t the type of space where I normally interact with G-d?
I finally figured out that wasn’t it.
First of all, major introvert surrounded by a couple of hundred strangers. I could feel all that energy pressing in on me. Also empath. I could see/feel the sadness of the family rising up like a dense little cloud from where they sat at the front. And in addition, naturally, I was aware of my friend’s pain, even as he was projecting confidence and strength for everyone else.
So… uncomfortable barely begins to describe it. My chest was tight. It was hard for me to breathe.
But also I wondered, not for the first time, if I had done the wrong thing by coming. I came to support my friend, but… here, obviously was a woman who was well and truly loved by her family and friends.
Who was I to even be here? The service hadn’t started. Perhaps I should just slip out.
And then I looked up.
Amazed that I hadn’t noticed immediately. Straight ahead of me was the largest image in the sanctuary. What the people whose church this is would name the Virgin Mary. And so She was. But She was also all the pagan goddesses the church had appropriated into their Virgin. As well She was the Divine Feminine, the Shechinah.
We considered each other for long moments. And I calmed down. Able to breathe again. The Lady was here with me, just as She is everywhere, and just as She always is.
No, this was not my sacred space, but it *was* a sacred space. And I was here with good intent, to show support for my friend on this hardest day for him, and to wish his mother a gentle journey as she went on her way into the World to Come.
So I continued to sit there.
It did seem like kind of a long service to me. And some of it was in another language, probably Greek, since it didn’t sound like Latin or Hebrew. But I was interested in what I understood of what was being said, because I’m interested in all the ways people come to G-d.
I have to admit there were a couple of things that had me dropping my head to hide a small, confused grin. The priest said that the departed was going to Heaven to be in the “bosom of Abraham.” And he also said that Jesus was “the light that guided Abraham to the promised land” at the time of the Exodus.
It was an interesting, if, to me, somewhat confusing, mixture of Torah and the new Testament.
Mostly, I simply sat there looking at the image of the Lady, feeling her protection in this “not my sacred space”. I concentrated on re-directing some of my awareness of Her caring to my friend and his family.
And, while not always feeling moved by what was being said, I was not feeling especially upset or offended either. The service was winding down, and I was beginning to think I might get through this okay.
But then… the priest announced that everyone was to come forward to pay their final respects at the casket and to acknowledge the church’s symbol of the resurrection of Jesus.
Oh. F**ing. My.
Assuming the casket was closed, which at that point it was, maybe I could go up there. Maybe. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that, because, well… a small list of becauses. Not the least of which was that not being noticed thing. No way to avoid notice if I did that. Not that there really was anyway. Only black person in the building after all.
But acknowledging the symbol of Jesus’ resurrection? And all that surrounds that?
Um no. Full stop. Jew here. Not going to happen.
I went into full panic mode for a couple of minutes as they started sending up row after row of people. I was sitting closest to the aisle in the row I was in.
For a good part of the service I’d been sitting there alone, even as the room filled, which was equal parts uncomfortable on the one hand and perfectly OK on the other. Eventually a family had joined me there, and I laughed at myself for perversely feeling just the teensiest bit put out about losing my *special* (black Jew only) space.
Now my aisle seat was a problem.
My first thought was just to get up and walk out… notice or no notice. Luckily they started from the back.
And by the time they got to the row I was in, I realized some other people hadn’t gone up. I also realized I could simply move out of the way, let the rest of the people in my row out into the aisle to join the line, and I could just… sit. back. down. Again happily alone in my special little row.
So that’s what I did.
I was a little worried for about half a minute that my friend might notice that I hadn’t gone up to pay my respects. But I quickly realized I was probably not even a blip on his radar. He was surrounded by family, and close friends, and his mother was dead. What kind of an ego did I have to even think that he might notice anything I was doing… or not doing?
Anyway, after surviving that, nothing else terrified me through the end of the service.
The thing that did touch my heart, and make me feel like I had been right to come, was watching my friend walk beside his mother’s casket as it was moved out of the church.
And as I walked out to my car, I happened to make eye contact with my friend so I know he knew I’d attended. I know it was silly on my part, but I admit I was happy to know that for sure.
And then I just came home, ate something, and napped. Did I mention I didn’t sleep well the night before? Heck, I hadn’t sleep well since I got the text his mother had died.
That should be the end. But later that night, the most amazing thing happened. My friend called me. That’s never happened. We chat in the bar where he works when he has a spare minute. And we text, but we have *never* talked on the phone.
And he thanked me for coming to the funeral. He thanked me. I was stunned. His mother had just been buried. I saw from his red eyes that he’d been crying when I walked by him in the parking lot at the end of the service. I’m not family. Only… almost… a friend. What was he doing calling me? Thanking me?
I’m still amazed he did that. It was the thing that finally convinced me that attending this funeral had absolutely been the right thing to do.
There is such a thing as a good death. My father had one, and from what I hear, so did my friend’s mother. What I didn’t know was that there is such a thing as a good funeral. My father definitely didn’t have that. I didn’t experience that at his funeral. But my friend and his mother did have it.
It was a blessing to be even a small part of that, and to now know what that feels like.
I continue to think that my friend is indeed a righteous man with a special destiny. And I am very glad he is surrounded by a family that cares for him.
I still don’t know why G-d has arranged the world to put us in each other’s lives. But I am more convinced than ever that there is a reason. I become more and more interested to find out what it is.
Photos by Jacalyn Beales and Jason Leung on Unsplash