2/9/13

Left Behind . . .

We have spent the last two weeks of Jew School (as I crassly, and inappropriately, call it) talking about death and how it is viewed, pondered, approached, incurred, dealt with, and followed-up on for both the living, the near/newly deceased, and their survivors.

I'll skip the part where I feign scholarship or Rabbinical prowess and, instead, give an overview of my key takeaways.

1) Death is not feared in the Jewish culture as it is in many Christian faiths. It is not something that ends the ultimatum hanging over your entire life.
2) There are prescribed periods of time and traditions for mourning someone based on your relation to them and their role in your life.
3) The body is deeply respected in death. There are seldom "calling hours" or "viewings" of a Jewish body. Cremation is very rare. Autopsies are only done when there is true worry about the real cause of death. Caskets are all very simple and are entirely made of wood as to allow the body to follow nature's process with limited interruption from our desire to preserve what was once a person we knew and loved.
4) The burial of a Jew is handled quickly. This is not just because when many of the customs around death took their roots there was no way to preserve a body or because of the lack of some of the things precluded above not requiring more time but - more over - it is done (in my understanding) to speed the mourning process.

I was raised Catholic. When my Grandmother Coyle died on October 26th. She was finally laid to rest on October 31st. Six days later. Why? Time was "needed." She died later in the day on the 26th. Most family didn't even have a chance to start planning travel until the 27th. There was a weekend in the middle. We needed to have family-only calling hours and at least two days of general viewings and then there was the required services, masses, and grave-side ceremonies followed by a luncheon. I remember, very clearly, the call from my parents that my Grandmother had died (she was taken after a quick 'bout with that heartless bitch we call Cancer). I flew from Hartford to Syracuse the next day (I didn't own a car and my parents had bigger fish to fry than a drive to/from the Nutmeg State). I was involved in family things, attended every minute of the viewings (my nuclear family stayed on the second level of the Funeral Home she was held at since the owner and my father were long-time friends and there were lots of family in from out of town so I had no excuse to avoid going downstairs). I don't remember really being sad or upset until the drive from the cemetery to the luncheon. Why? There was too. much. other. crap. going. on.

There is a very clear process for grieving. The Mourner's Kaddish. There are candles. Prayers. Food. Visitation. Seven days with out leaving the house, no bathing, no cooking (people do it for you), no anything and a torn black ribbon worn above the heart (I'm paraphrasing) and then life goes (sorta') back to normal. NOT that you forget the person. NOT that you just sort of snap out of it. NOT that you just pretend there is no loss and never cry, get sad, or feel the loss again. NOPE. BUT the point is that Jews clear their figurative plates and mourn DEEPLY (there is nothing else to do) as soon as they can following a death so they might move on.

I am lucky. I've lost very few people in this life. My parents, siblings, and child are still alive. But I've seen plenty of people I love suffer the loss of a spouse, parent, child, and combinations of the above. I don't know that you ever heal from these wounds. I don't know that you ever have a timeline for how much to grieve when. I am not entirely sure that any learning or cultural/religious direction I may have will help me when I am in the situations described above but I was very heartened on Thursday to learn that I'm at least going to have a road map to help me out.

Wrinkle? None of my family is Jewish so I can go dive deep and fast in to mourning but, if Grandma Coyle is any indication, I'll be nearly through the official mourning period before the casket is lowered. And maybe that will be okay.