Thirty Days and Thirty Nights

My parents spring into action when someone dies. Don't get me wrong; they're also extremely good when people are alive. But special funereal circumstances turn them into crack-funereal-response units who deliver gefilte fish at the drop of a hat.

Stuff you should know about Jewish funerals (levoyahs): there's none of that waiting-for-Matthew-to-get back-from-Oz timescale. In common with most Jewish observances and psychological customs, they happen at breakneck speed; late afternoon if you die before 11am, the next morning if you die during the now-threatened second post delivery slot. There's intense mourning for a week - shiva - often just called Prayers. A bit like Jewish people often call the Israeli Embassy "The Embassy" - as if there's only one. Then there's a month of semi-mourning, with less intensive customs - shloshim - followed by a year of low-grade mourning, where male mourners - in more traditional circles, and women in more liberated ones - continue to say Kaddish (sanctification), the traditional Aramaic prayer of remembrance. Lesson over.

So the telecoms-enabled bush telegraph lights its fire as soon as someone dies. You get phone calls in suitably mournful tones so you immediately know how to respond:

"Mavis's mother died this morning." Pause for appropriate dramatic response. "The funeral'll be this afternoon. I'll keep you informed. Can you tell Stanley?"

A conversation will probably follow about whether it will be at two or three or inconvenient o'clock, combined with passing comments on X cemetery being the "coldest place on earth". I think this may be true whether it's Failsworth (North Manchester - genuinely cold and possibly God-forsaken) or coastal borscht-belt Bournemouth (where a lot of old Jewish people go to die, for some reason).

Now don't get me wrong - I love community and connectedness and all other forms of collective identity that give me a sense of belonging or the tools to make meaning out of this chaotic world - but I struggle with the combined glee/drama element of such occasions.

Jewish funerals are always at deeply inconvenient short-notice times. Non-Jewish work colleagues always felt that I had a huge family - which I do, to some degree - mostly because I go to a lot of funerals.

This is because of my Mum's funeral-going-rubric; if you share someone's simchas (happy occasions) you have to share the sad times, too. So if I've been to someone's wedding, housewarming party, seen them more often than the most distant of passing acquaintances, I feel obliged to attend, perhaps out of some outmoded sense of public duty. My parents feel "if in doubt, go." I think most people's policy is "if in doubt, don't". I imagine that when the drama has dulled and families in my family's extended circle of acquaintance come up for air after the shiva week, they often say to each other "what on earth were Shirley and David doing there? I've not seen them in years."

When I was at Junior School and my aging, sick Grandfather died, we had to write News every Monday morning. Looking back at my gauche primary school teacher, I suspect that she had a limited social life and derived some vicarious pleasure from what middle-class suburban families did on the weekend. Anyway, I wrote those memorable words; "my grandpa died, we have parties every night."

And in some sense, a shiva is a celebration of someone's life. Especially someone older, tired, frail and where the family have had time to mourn their imminent passing during a prolonged illness. The laws of mourning are just as much for the mourners as the dead, and just as much for the "comforters" as the mourners.

Non-Jewish friends often feel an awkwardness in such circumstances. How to respond. What to say. I remember when a local family lost their eldest son in a car accident when we were all seventeen. Because the Smiths had inexplicably chosen to live in Cheadle, home of the ultimate middle-of-the-road community, they found themselves surrounded by Jewish families and friends who knew how to respond in an emergency. However hard, tragic, death-defying, you just follow the rules; and in so doing, everyone plays their allotted part and life moves on.

All our parents took round food, and cake, and visited, and talked, and helped with funeral arrangements. Mary's best friend wrote and said "I'm sure you'll want to be alone at this difficult time." Years later, when the dust has settled as much as the drama of losing a child ever does, Mary told my Mother she knows exactly what to do when someone loses a loved one now: "I take round a side of salmon and salad, put it in the fridge, put the kettle on and talk."

Or, a couple of years ago, my boss lost her father. I mean, she didn't lose him; he died. I hate euphemisms. He was in his eighties, and had been ill for some time, so it was as expected as these things ever are. She took some leave, and went back to Cumbria to spend time with her Mother. People in the office had a whip round and sent flowers. I wrote to her. What I've learned from my family's hands-on approach to death is that acknowledging life-cycle events is the only way everyone can achieve - to choose an inappropriate therapy-style word - closure.

Of course, there's an all purpose condolence letter: "Dear [field one], I was so sorry to hear of the death [can be harsh]/loss [sounds like a handbag or set of keys]/passing [sounds like a gallstone] of [field two]. I know that [insert appropriate platitude; she didn't suffer, he loved his family, he was very proud of all the grandchildren], and I hope that the happy memories you have of him/her will help you through this difficult time."

If you know the mourners well, insert a paragraph on the last happy occasion you spent with their dearly departed; for example: "I so enjoyed sitting with Harry at Josh's Barmitzvah, and he regaled me with wonderful tales of Cheetham Hill in the twenties that will have me chuckling for some time. Not only was he a wonderful family man, but a talented raconteur."

And if the mourners are anywhere to the right of the United Synagogue, insert the sentence (ideally in Hebrew to indicate your superlative Jewish education) "May the almighty comfort you like the mourners at the gate of Zion and Jerusalem." Which is supposed to make them feel better, but will at least ensure that they know that you know the rules.

In summary; Jewish mourning customs are a time to reinforce community; to get feedback on your best chopped and fried recipes and to deal with life in the customary "if we don't laugh, we'll cry" way. So now you know.

8th. August 2002

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