Lasting and Recurrent Memories

Rabbi Jonathan Kendall
Rabbi Jonathan Kendall

I remember attending my first funeral. I’m pretty sure it was toward the close of elementary school, maybe a little earlier, perhaps a little later. One of the kids in our tight Jewish circle had contracted leukemia. In those days, treatment was primitive and children with the disease almost inevitably died. He did just that in what was a fairly rapid descent from good health to eternity. It took us all by surprise. By that time we all knew that grandparents died and there were scattered instances of parents who either were felled by disease or accidents, but peers were outside our universe of discourse and far beyond the relatively simple world of the 50’s during which the major threat to existence was nuclear immolation (hiding under wooden desks was the preferred method of protection – an exercise that now seems ridiculous, but then had all of the seriousness of the bi-weekly air raid sirens that blared across the Mahoning Valley more than hinting that annihilation was imminent).

So word spread quickly that our friend had lost his battle and I recall nothing about the funeral but everything about the discussion I had with my parents about whether I would attend – wanted to attend – the funeral.

As a kid, this would be a new experience, albeit one filled with mystery. Since that time – so very many years ago – I have been a part of the same discussion with parents about kids attending funerals. In most instances, the deceased are grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins and there are always two centerpieces to the talk. One concerns the age of the child and the other about wanting to shield the child from the finality of the experience. During the course of time, I have seen the parents of pre-teens keep their kids at home and the parents of five and six year old children bring them to funerals. There is a strong parental aversion to traumatizing kids – which I perfectly understand – and an equally powerful desire to allow them to share in this most poignant of farewells. In the final analysis, my counsel has always been canted toward the emotional maturity of the child and the stability of the parents (which is usually the wild card).

Fast forward some 55+ years and I find myself again attending the funerals of peers and I’m not always sure I want to go. There is a halacha that says if you are standing on a sidewalk or in the street and you see a funeral cortege pass by, you are obligated to join it because bringing comfort to mourners is among the mitzvot without measure. But still, I hesitate. There is no mystery anymore and my emotional maturity is not in question (most of the time). I have come to dislike funerals (never “liked” them, but they were a part of my professional life). It’s just that almost every funeral seemed to be about yesterday. Now they’re about tomorrow. Intimations about your own mortality are sometimes more difficult to negotiate than we would care to admit. Still, I go, but much to my amazement, it doesn’t get any easier.

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