A long, long time ago, just on the edge of where memory meets embellishment, I was an Associate Rabbi in Hollywood – not Hollywood, FL, heaven forefend – but the real Hollywood, with swimming pools and movie stars.
I learned many things from my Senior Rabbi, including the reality that the associate did not officiate at the “A List” funerals. We had other roles. There came the day when one of our A-listers had entered into his eternity and the division of labor was interesting. The senior would lead most of the service and say a few words, but the eulogy would be delivered by Hollywood’s official toastmaster and eulogizer (also a member of the congregation) with musical accompaniment by Tony Martin and Giselle Mackenzie (the deceased – a very lovely guy who also was a congregant – had been a composer and arranger until age and debility forced his retirement, but he still remained a much adored fixture in the venerated universe that was the “Old Hollywood.”) My assignment was to sit in the board room and keep Georgie Jessel, Tony Martin and Giselle Mackenzie occupied and then deliver them to the sanctuary at the appropriate time.
It was a late morning funeral and when I arrived in the board room, Martin and Jessel were already there. I had always thought that Martin was Italian, but there he was, conversing in Yiddish with Jessel and sharing a rather large flask. Giselle swept into the room about fifteen minutes later and by the advent of the appointed hour, Jessel and Martin were three sails to the wind. Martin and Mackenzie could navigate on their own, but Mr. Jessel required help getting out of his chair and walking down the long corridor to the sanctuary. I got them situated on the pulpit and Mr. Jessel immediately nodded off. I whispered my concerns to the Senior Rabbi, and his response: Just wake him up when I introduce him and then watch and listen.
Tony and Giselle sang – quite beautifully – to the 300 or so of Hollywood’s finest and oldest who were lost in the 1200 seat sanctuary. The service progressed and Mr. Jessel was introduced. I awakened him and offered to assist him to the podium and his response? Humph! Straight of back, a gait that was part march, part swagger, hair piece slightly askew, Jessel stepped to the podium and, without notes or a text, delivered a flawless twenty minute eulogy. Martin leaned over to me and exclaimed “Isn’t he great!” And, I had to admit, he was.
He mentioned the widow, children and grandchildren in a very sensitive way, paid tribute to the deceased’s contributions to cinema in general and music in particular and then launched into a dissertation on life’s fragility and the ephemeral nature of our time on earth. I learned from him a most valuable lesson: that eulogies need not be an encyclopedic recitation of accomplishments (even for people whose emotional reach goes beyond family and friends) but rather ought to center on this great gift we are given – of being permitted to move gracefully and substantively through time, even though that time is limited.
Of course, today there is usually a parade of eulogizers who can turn a casual anecdote into a fifteen minute remembrance, most always a delight to the assembled mourners. One or two of these participants rises to acceptability; six or seven usually invites coughing and squirming in the ranks, sure signs that too much information is being imparted.
There is, I think, a delicate balance between saying good-bye through the continuity ancient liturgy and stream-of-consciousness recollections. I have long forgotten Jessel’s simplicity or his elegance under the weight of pointless stories and meandering tales told to elicit laughter.
In too many instances, the funeral has become a venue for stand-up and we are diminished by that, we who are supposed to mourn and grieve and come to grips with the fact that we are saying farewell to an entire universe of unique and singular connections to the world. Maybe this is the modern device people use to protect themselves from the enormity, the tremendum of loss. I don’t know, but I do recognize that diverting grief or misappropriating rituals of parting aren’t a healthy or intelligent path. If you have the time or the courage, plan your funeral so that it will provide those you leave behind a generous portion of comfort while not trammeling on our values. We are not Vikings and the venue will most likely not be the Friars’ Club.