When, last year, the United Synagogue changed its rules barring laypeople from delivering eulogies at funerals, I was strongly behind it. I had been frequently shocked by the impersonal nature of funerals here, with rabbis who did not know the deceased, or who did not know them well, giving a few biographical details and saying little else of interest. (I remember in particular one funeral of a young woman, where the rabbi referred to her throughout the eulogy by her Hebrew name, although she was not known by it at all.) It struck me as offensive to the person who had died - surely everyone deserves something meaningful and heartfelt to be said about them at their own funerals! - as well as to the mourners, who very often want to express their feelings about their spouse or parent at this most important of times.
But here comes a word of warning from Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform movement in the United States. He argues that American Jewry has gone too far the other way, and has written a piece about how laypeople speaking at funerals (the norm, not the exception, in American Jewish funerals) has caused problems as well as solved them:
Family members discovered that when a close relative died, there was an expectation that one of them would speak -- even if they had no desire to do so. Since Jewish burials take place as soon as possible after the death, individuals still reeling from the impact of a loss find themselves under pressure -- real or self-imposed -- to talk at the funeral and represent the family to the community. Some refuse and feel guilty. Others agree but find the task difficult and painful. Either way, an unfair burden is imposed on those who are in profound distress.
Another problem -- delicate but unavoidable -- is that not everyone is suited to offer a eulogy at a funeral. The issue is not whether a mourner has public speaking experience or can give a polished talk; the absence of experience and polish is often an advantage. But someone who is uncomfortable in front of a group under favorable circumstances is likely to be completely overcome in the highly charged atmosphere of a funeral. The result may be a talk that is exceedingly emotional and barely coherent -- one in which the feelings of the speaker rather than the character of the deceased are primary.
And finally the practice of having family members and friends speak at a funeral can quickly get out of hand. The spouse of the deceased, not certain whom to invite and afraid of leaving someone out, feels that all of her children, or perhaps even all of her grandchildren, should say something. Friends, seeing that other friends are participating, come forward and offer -- sometimes quite insistently -- to participate as well, and it is awkward to turn them down. Many end up sharing anecdotes that are more about themselves than about their late friend, and -- yes, it happens -- trying to outdo the other speakers. The result? A funeral like the one mentioned above that leaves the members of the congregation both uncomfortable and bored, shifting in their seats and surreptitiously looking at the watches. Most important, the closest relatives cannot help but sense what is happening, and they suffer as a result.
Of course, these are the things that the US always warned about. Hopefully our British reserve and sense of propriety, as well as the continuing close involvement of our rabbis in all funerals, will prevent many of these problems. Certainly the rabbis conducting the funerals should emphasise to the mourners that they are under no obligation to speak if they don't want to (perhaps they already do, I don't know).
I have, sadly, been to several funerals since the laypeople rule was relaxed and they have all been highly dignified, very touching services.