It started with an e-mail last Thursday from our friend and neighbor “Harriet.” She wrote that “Barbara”, her mother-in-law, had passed away at age 103 and invited us to sit Shiva at their house on Saturday. “Arnie” and Harriet are good people, good friends, and we decided to attend.
We are glad we did.
Never before having attended this Jewish ceremony, I read up on it before we went to their house. I found that Shiva, which lasts for one, two, three or seven days, is intended to” guide mourners through tragic loss and gradually ease them back into the world.” Up until the burial and the funeral eulogy, the focus is on the one who has died and on honoring him or,in this case, her. The Shiva ceremony concerns itself with the mourners and is intended to bring them emotional, psychological and spiritual healing. It stresses that the person we have lost is not the physical person but the soul. A memorial candle, signifying the soul of the departed, is kept burning 24 hours a day for an entire week. It reminds us that the soul is eternal. Neighbors and friends bring food for a meal of consolation which signifies a return to life for those who are left behind. It also has a practical purpose since the family members themselves may not be in a frame of mind to do any cooking. No flowers or gifts are to be brought, other than the food. The front door is left open and attendees enter and sit silently, close to the mourning family. After the meal, there are prayers that culminate in the reciting of the Kaddish. There are other rules such as low chairs, and modest, sober clothing and no mirrors but I won’t go into them here. Arnie and Harriet are observant but not hidebound sticklers for tradition.
We entered through the front door which had been left open and found about thirty people milling around in the family room, kitchen and foyer. We knew Arnie and Harriet of course but no one else. It did not matter because everyone made us feel home. On the kitchen counter and on tables set next to it was an assortment of cookies, a tiramisu, assorted cakes and a pot of coffee. No alcohol. We helped ourselves and made small talk with some of the family members we had just been introduced to. Soon, it was time for the prayers. I helped the young rabbi distribute the prayer books and the service began. We tried to follow along but were all at sea until we realized that Hebrew books are read back to front; after that we were fine.
The right hand side pages were in English and the left hand pages in Hebrew. The gathering read along with the rabbi and some who were proficient with the Hebrew prayers sang along with him. I was amazed( and appreciative) at the universal nature of the prayers. I don’t think they mentioned any particular god and they reminded me , more than anything else of Native American invocations to the Great Spirit. Basically, they exalt God and remind us that though Life is a journey through uncharted territory, we are all in it together; that even though it may be a daunting task, we must persevere and that we will eventually attain peace and harmony. The prayers did not mention death and focused on the future, not the past. They assured us that sorrow will lift and life renewed and they connected us with others. I could see how they would bring comfort to the bereaved.
After the prayer books had been collected , the rabbi invited those gathered to share their recollections of the departed one. One by one, family members and friends spoke about Barbara’s sense of humor, her sunny disposition and her love of family.
One story bears repeating.
We were told that Barbara’s last few years were spent in a nursing home but that she retained her zest for life and was very appreciative of those caring for her. She wanted to do something for them, leave each of them a little gift. Her sons assured her that they would do as she wished but she insisted on doing it herself. She said that she wanted to leave them a bequest in her will, perhaps fifty dollars each, and asked for a complete list of everyone who had tended her. Arnie made the list and brought it to her, whereupon she asked how many names were on it. ” Nine ” was his answer. There was a little silence and then she said ” Do you think $ 5 each is enough ?!”
Not surprisingly, the story brought down the house and set the tone for the comments that followed. More than anything else, the ceremony was a celebration of Barbara’s life. No doubt, the fact that she was 103 when she passed lightened the grief of the mourners; there is also no doubt that the ceremony was very positive and forward-looking and full of hope.
I have attended similar ceremonies for people of other faiths but their dominant feature was grief and the sense of loss. Would that they were more like the one we attended.