I had barely entered the rabbinic ordination program at ALEPH | Alliance for Jewish Renewal when I was asked to perform my first life cycle service. It was a funeral.
To perform a service for someone you did not know means listening deeply to those who did. Grieving relatives tell you stories of their loved ones, of their loss. You will do your best to understand the depth of that pain while staying centered and clear. Then you will do your best to create a service that will honor the life of the human being you are to help bury.
I learned how to do those things from wise teachers.
“I’ve buried so many people,” Rabbi Victor Gross told me. “I’ve buried friends. I learned.” Then he told me what he had learned. After a funeral, he said, remember to rest and take care of yourself. Honor your renewed awareness of life’s fragility and death’s transformations.
Reb Victor knew (and knows) me well. He told me to stop and create plenty of space between the griefs and the graveyard to my office and classrooms.
“Don’t go back to work after the service,” he’d say. He would tell me to rely on my little family for comfort, to rest in the arms of the Shekhina. I knew he was right. He was offering me wisdom about tender places, the ones that mark the thresholds between life and death (and life).
I did not take his advice.
Instead, after a funeral I would walk out and away and back into my work world. I’d go back to the computer, prepare my classes at UNC Charlotte. I’d read emails from students or congregants, go back to the podium and the lecture hall.
My teacher had given me a holy instruction about the sacred nature of the work I was doing. I did that work with my whole self and then returned, almost without pause, to the expectations and demands of a profane world I believed I could not ignore.
Yesterday, I received an email from Sarah McCurry’s boyfriend, Eric. Sarah was once a student of mine, one I grew to care for very deeply. We kept in touch after she graduated.
Sarah died after nearly one year of life with colon cancer at the age of 24. Her remains were cremated. When she first spoke to me about her illness, almost exactly a year ago, she told me that she had passed by a synagogue just after receiving her diagnosis.
“I thought of you,” she said. “I want you to do my funeral.”
“If it gets to that,” I said, “I will.”
Sarah’s beloved aunt Susie also died of colon cancer just ten months before Sarah was diagnosed. Sarah wanted her ashes to be scattered where her aunt’s had been – in a little river near the mountains of North Carolina where she had played as a child.
In his email, Eric sent me pictures of Sarah walking across that little river, bringing flowers to lay there in memory of her aunt on the first anniversary of her death. He asked if I could perform the service when Sarah’s ashes were scattered there.
Sarah’s family is, as far as I know, Baptist. Sarah did not call herself a Christian, though she learned to commune with angels during her last year of life.
Reb Victor, I promise you: The day of Sarah’s service I will turn from that little river, drive home from the mountains, and rest. I will acknowledge my own grief and listen to my body, heart and soul. I will honor life’s fragility and death’s transformations.
I will give your wisdom its due.