When I officiate at a funeral, I quickly become absorbed in the drama of the event. I feel like an actress who seeks to faithfully bring to life the heightened emotions of confusion, disorientation, grief, longing and gratitude that lie behind the prayers and other readings. I notice as well that my tone varies depending on the circumstances of the death and the mood of the family. When the grief is intense, I read the words with sadness in my voice. When the mood is of relief (admitted or not) for the end of prolonged suffering, I try to impart the gentleness and calm that reflect this relief.
I remember one time officiating at a funeral for a relatively young woman who championed animal rescue and who was extraordinarily sensitive to human needs. I sensed the anger of the mourners as well as myself at the premature ending of such a giving and loving person. So as I delivered the eulogy, I felt myself singing out her beautiful life story in a defiant tone, as if to say, despite her cruel disease inflicting such an end, this person managed to contribute more to the Universe than many of us ever would in a life twice as long.
Officiating at a funeral entails a big responsibility as I try to be true to what will be most meaningful to the family with my choice of readings, transitions between each part of the service, silent prayer, songs and sometimes through a eulogy. I try to discern what will be of most comfort depending on the kind of grieving and expectations there are.
Imagine now my doing this for a relative. “No pressure,” one of the relatives assured me about an hour beforehand. I sighed and said “Right.” At least they were aware of the ticklish position I was in. And gosh what did I get myself into now? The funeral home was even going to videotape the whole business and put it on a CD for the family. This is definitely not what I have in mind when it comes to publicity.What about all the stuff I had read in psychology books about role confusion and crossing boundaries? True enough, but somehow in this case since they wanted the comfort of a familiar figure rather than a “cold” stranger, I gambled on making an exception to role confusion (i.e. “authoritative rabbi” and “plain old member of the extended family.”)
I decided the way to go about this was to respectfully convey the simplicity that matched the family’s other decisions, such as a plain pine casket and a modest number of short eulogies. To be honest, I also avoided anything elaborate so as to minimize the risk of having something go wrong! But like all other funerals I have done, I soon got lost in the drama of what I was doing, invoking the comfort of Jewish ritual, of taking on the honor of leading this sacred event, and signaling the end of months of suffering and the beginning of eternal rest for the deceased. I can only hope that rather than create more wear and tear on us all, that I managed to set the scene for the healing powers of grieving.