No one ever asked if I wanted to speak at my brother’s funeral. No family members gave a eulogy. None of his friends talked. Only one person, the rabbi, stood in front of us remembering a 23-year-old man he had never met.
My brother died in 1986 in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel. Though my family was not observant, we followed Jewish custom and moved quickly to bury and memorialize him. That the rabbi, who my family met only shortly before the funeral, gave the eulogy was the norm in the 1980s. Now, rabbis act more as facilitator at funerals. They typically ask family members if they want to speak about their loved one. I love that they ask despite a recent Huffington Post article lamenting how some funerals have become fiascos because of too many self-aggrandizing, drawn-out eulogies.
The Huffington Post piece’s author, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, said he was disturbed by funerals he witnessed in recent years. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he left some services “distressed and even indignant rather than consoled” because of eulogies that were “self-serving, inappropriate, or badly prepared.” I understand such concerns, but argue that it’s better to err on the side of inclusion. Talking about the person we lost is a part of healing for mourners. So is hearing friends say something even if their speech is a bit off.
In my yet-to-be published memoir, I write about my brother’s funeral and the exclusion I felt when I was not asked to even add my thoughts as the rabbi wrote the eulogy.
I hoped for solace, some explanation, and a path to follow for the rest of this day and onward as my family entered the funeral home sanctuary and sat in the front row. … The rabbi spoke of my brother as he was, “never one to approach life hesitantly.” He described Kevin as the one who “embraced new situations and challenges.” He spoke about Kevin’s friendship to others, his love for sports, his love for his family. The picture seemed incomplete. The essence of the brother I knew was missing. Kevin, while eager to dash down a mountain on snow skis or across a ramp on water skis, did not embrace other challenges. He often wanted a bit of the easy way out, something I admired because I tended to pick the most challenging roads. … The eulogy left me wanting for more.
A few years ago, I spoke with the rabbi who officiated at my brother’s funeral. He said he would have handled things differently if he were overseeing the service today. He would have asked if others wanted to speak. He would have made sure that my thoughts on my brother were incorporated. Whether I would have wanted to speak if asked, I do not know. My brother was killed suddenly. All of us were in shock. I could barely speak the morning of my brother’s funeral. Yet, I think rabbis should continue to ask mourners if they want to speak or whether they want others to give eulogies.
Keep funerals participatory. Clergy should give advice on what makes a suitable eulogy so funerals do not become insufferable or have inappropriate content. They should urge family members to keep the number of speakers low. Sitting through a long funeral for a loved one can be traumatic and painful. Mourners need to hear that others loved the deceased, but the conversation can and should continue after the funeral ends.
My mother, cousin, and I all gave eulogies at my grandmother’s funeral in 2004. Each of volunteered when the rabbi asked who wanted to speak at the funeral. Our eulogies were all different and loving. My Grandma Pearl, who died at age 102, gave her family and friends beautiful legacies – a love for music, art, and most of all, family. Almost a year later, at the unveiling for my grandmother, about 20 family members and friends gathered at the cemetery and shared memories. Each of us seemed to know that we did not need to say much. What was important was that our voices – on behalf of my Grandma Pearl — were heard.