A friend of mine recently attended the funeral of someone he had known for many years. About a dozen people got up to speak. Most of them spoke badly. Often the eulogizers ended up talking not about the deceased but about themselves. When the funeral was finally over, at least an hour and a half later, my friend was frustrated and angry. "I cared about this person," he said, "and she deserved a more fitting farewell."
Jewish funerals have changed in the last several decades, and not always for the better. Some of the changes were both understandable and welcome. At a time when all ritual was becoming less formal, Jews wanted funeral services that were more personal, intimate, and heartfelt. Therefore, when a death occurred, instead of calling on the rabbi for the eulogy, a close member of the family -- perhaps a child or sibling of the deceased -- was sometimes called upon to say a few words.
So far, so good. I have frequently been deeply moved by the eloquence of a daughter speaking of her father at his funeral, sharing memories and experiences with power and immediacy that no other speaker could possibly provide. A family member or close friend is often in a position to do what a member of the clergy cannot.
But once this door was opened, a variety of difficulties came into play. Family members discovered that when a close relative died, there was an expectation that one of them would speak -- even if they had no desire to do so. Since Jewish burials take place as soon as possible after the death, individuals still reeling from the impact of a loss find themselves under pressure -- real or self-imposed -- to talk at the funeral and represent the family to the community. Some refuse and feel guilty. Others agree but find the task difficult and painful. Either way, an unfair burden is imposed on those who are in profound distress.
Another problem -- delicate but unavoidable -- is that not everyone is suited to offer a eulogy at a funeral. The issue is not whether a mourner has public speaking experience or can give a polished talk; the absence of experience and polish is often an advantage. But someone who is uncomfortable in front of a group under favorable circumstances is likely to be completely overcome in the highly charged atmosphere of a funeral. The result may be a talk that is exceedingly emotional and barely coherent -- one in which the feelings of the speaker rather than the character of the deceased are primary.
And finally the practice of having family members and friends speak at a funeral can quickly get out of hand. The spouse of the deceased, not certain whom to invite and afraid of leaving someone out, feels that all of her children, or perhaps even all of her grandchildren, should say something. Friends, seeing that other friends are participating, come forward and offer -- sometimes quite insistently -- to participate as well, and it is awkward to turn them down. Many end up sharing anecdotes that are more about themselves than about their late friend, and -- yes, it happens -- trying to outdo the other speakers. The result? A funeral like the one mentioned above that leaves the members of the congregation both uncomfortable and bored, shifting in their seats and surreptitiously looking at the watches. Most important, the closest relatives cannot help but sense what is happening, and they suffer as a result.
As we know from Abraham's lament over Sarah and David's over Saul and Jonathan, the primary purpose of a eulogy -- in Hebrew, hesped -- is to praise the deceased. Whether one does so in simple, direct language or in elegant, poetic form, it is these words of praise -- spoken from the heart -- that help the mourners cope with their pain. Funeral services that are endless and multiple eulogies that are self-serving, inappropriate, or badly prepared dishonor the dead and deny the living the support and comfort that they deserve.
Most funeral services are not like that, of course, and every rabbi that I know is exquisitely sensitive to the problems that I have mentioned. Nonetheless, I fear that cultural patterns are creating pressures that are hard to resist, and in the last few years I have attended far too many funerals that have left me distressed and even indignant rather than consoled. My fear is that if we do nothing, this sort of funeral will become the norm. Before that happens, let's give some thought to how we remember and honor the departed.