Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Dead against it

The NYT writes about the Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy's battle against eulogies by laity, which are becoming increasingly secular, irreverant and untraditional.
In August, Jaye Zimet, a lesbian author from Brooklyn, died without warning at 43. She had always led an unconventional life. (For years, she colored her hair purple.) About 300 friends and relatives, including children, gathered in a Brooklyn funeral home for a traditional Jewish service. There, Ms. Zimet's friend Tory Klose stood to say a few words.
"Jaye grew comfortable with her sexuality," Ms. Klose said, "and showed many of us that life in the fresh air was vastly preferable to that in the closet."
Ms. Klose, executive director of copy editing at Viking Books, then described a shopping trip led by Ms. Zimet to a store called "Toys in Babeland."
Stephanie A. Schwartz, a journal editor and Ms. Zimet's partner, was stunned but also amused at the mention of sex paraphernalia. "We were all laughing," she recalled. "Laughing a lot. And I remember thinking: Should we be laughing?"
Mark Goldberg, the Orthodox rabbi who presided over the service, found Ms. Klose's eulogy unusual, to say the least.
"Everyone has a very special soul," said Rabbi Goldberg, "and that's what I shared with them. Did I smile when I said that this was a first for me? Yes."
The rabbi added, "I've never heard any words like that, whether eulogy or not."
According to the article, it's becoming increasingly common for Christian clergy to ban eulogies by laity.
In England, the (Orthodox) United Synagogue, which conducts 90% of the Jewish burials, also does not allow eulogies by anyone other than a rabbi, also because they are scared of what people will say. This is one of the things I find most upsetting about the British Jewish community. This summer, for example, I went to the funeral of a wonderful, brave young woman, who died prematurely at 36. The rabbi, who was clearly a kind and well-meaning man, knew the family but hadn't had much to do with the deceased in recent years, and gave a calm, quiet, unemotional eulogy. He called the woman who had died by her Hebrew name (which she didn't use), barely mentioned the boyfriend who had supported her through thick and thin, and basically gave a lengthy dvar torah instead of saying anything realistic about who she had been.
Perhaps because of my years in Israel -- where funerals are loud, emotional and expressive affairs -- I was simply shocked at a funeral which was so impersonal, and left feeling something was terribly wrong. The tragedy is, because of the rabbi-only rule, it is quite common in Jewish funerals in the UK for the speaker to be totally unfamiliar with the deceased, and certainly not to know them very well.
This is a total tragedy, for the deceased, who deserves to have something personal said about them at their own funeral; for the mourners, who I think often have a need to express their emotions, and talk about the person they lost at the service; and for the crowd of friends, who also want to say goodbye in a more meaningful way.
Yes, those giving the eulogy must remember to keep a sense of decorum and appropriateness -- and there are rules which can be put in place to ensure that proceedings remain dignified. But banning friends and family from talking at a funeral altogether is not the answer.

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