Death & Context

Michael Medved
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Posted: Mar 25, 2009 12:00 AM

In the days following my father’s death on March 11th, I’ve missed more consecutive days of live radio broadcasting than any other time since my show began nearly thirteen years ago. Since I don’t take extended vacations and even manage to broadcast frequently from the road (in Israel, Hawaii, New York, wherever) most of the time, missing five days in a row stands out as a break in tradition and deserves some explanation.

That explanation might also serve to answer the well-meaning questions I’ve received from listeners and friends who’ve generously sent their condolences over the loss of my father.

Since Jews are a tiny minority in the United States, and religious Jews constitute a minority within that minority, it’s worth trying to explain the fundamentals of the seven-day mourning process I’m just concluding.

First, it’s worth noting that Jewish tradition requires prompt burial as a matter of respect. In contrast to the Egyptian civilization that developed next door to ancient Israel, Jews don’t do anything to embalm or preserve or decorate the body. The idea of mummification and elaborate, carved sarcophagi – or the public display of a preserved body, as with Lenin in Red Square – would be anathema to Jews of yesterday or today. We believe that God’s will mandates the natural process of decay, after the soul has left the body. In the Book of Genesis, as part of the banishment of human beings from the Garden of Eden, God declares: ”In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (3:19).

This means that our laws demand that the departed be returned to the ground (from which he came) as quickly as possible, with delays only for extraordinary circumstances. I heard about my dad’s passing around midnight on last Tuesday night, then managed to get on the plane to Israel at 6.30 the next morning, arriving (with my brother Harry) just before sunset at the Jerusalem hilltop cemetery just as the memorial service began. My father lay before us in a plain, tightly wrapped white shroud, covered with the prayer shawl he had used in synagogue for several decades. There is no coffin – not even the unadorned pine box used by religious Jews elsewhere – in Jerusalem funerals. The ceremony emphasizes bringing the departed directly and quickly into contact with the holy soil of this special place where, in my father’s case, he chose to live the last 19 of his 83 years.

When we arrived at the funeral a large crowd (more than 200 people) had already assembled and begun listening to the beautiful words, in Hebrew, of one of my dad’s best friends, Dr. Jospeh Bodenheimer, President of the Jersualem College of Technology (one of the leading high tech training institutions in the world). After that, my brother Jonathan spoke, then my brother Harry, then me recalling the features of my father’s life and personality that made him so important to so many people he touched and inspired.

I actually cut my remarks short because we were racing the sun. In Jewish tradition, the day ends and a new day begins with sunset (based on the Genesis description, “It was evening, and it was morning, the first day”). Having already delayed the burial for a full day to allow the arrival of his sons from abroad, the Chevra Kadisha (“Holy Brotherhood,” supervising religious authorities on matters of death and bereavement) wanted to make sure we brought my dad to his place of rest before the sun went down.

Six friends lifted my father’s body onto a simple stretcher, and helped to carry him to a wooded hillside with sweeping views of the city. As the other mourners arrived they lowered him into a deep grave cut into the rocky soil, then covered him over with fitted marble slabs. Burials in Jerusalem have followed precisely the same procedures for literally thousands of years, and in the gathering dusk I stood with my brothers and recited the ancient memorial prayer (in Aramaic), the Kaddish (“Holiness”). Though often misidentified as a “prayer for the dead,” this formulation never mentions death, grief or afterlife. The real theme is proclaimed in the opening line: “Magnified and sanctified be His great Name in the world He created according to His will.”

In other words, rather than asking specific mercy on the departed, or comfort for the bereaved, we respond to death by acknowledging God’s power, majesty and control of every aspect of our lives. To honor the memory of a loved one, mourners recite this declaration in morning, afternoon and evening prayers every day for the eleven months following burial. The challenge is that a prayer quorum (minyan) of ten adult Jewish males is required to say the kaddish, which means that in honoring a loved one who has died you must depend on, or return to, a religious community. In that way, the eleven months as a mourner has served for many disaffiliated or indifferent individuals as a path back to commitment or continuity.

The first seven days after the funeral, this observance is no problem since the prayer quorum comes to you. The word “shiva” means, simply, seven, and denotes the first week after a burial when close relatives (children, spouses, parents of the deceased) gather together in a house of mourning without undertaking their normal jobs or activities. It’s considered a religious obligation to visit such a house, to bring words of comfort and specially prepared foods, and to join in the prayers three times a day. The close relatives sit on the floor or on low benches, and receive the visitors who stream through the home in a course of a busy, demanding but oddly uplifting week.

We “sat shiva” (observing the week of mourning) in my brother Jonathan’s house in Jerusalem, not far from where my father lived and the tree-shaded plot where he rests now. The stream of visitors has been amazing –including some of the most celebrated political, cultural and religious leaders in Israel, coming to pay their respects to my father’s memory. The first prayer service began at 7.30 each morning and the last visitors finally went home about 11.00 PM each night. The conversations often centered on little recollections (often humorous) about my dad and his many endearing quirks, but also ran far afield to cover politics (both American and Israeli), mutual friends, the chances of economic recovery, family history, or even favorite foods.

The restriction on ordinary work made it impossible for me to broadcast the show this week, though my brothers did join me in a telephone conversation with my guest host (my friend and colleague, Dave Boze) about my dad and the mourning process. In many instances, the week of mourning provides the first chance for siblings to live together under the same roof (and to share every meal together) since childhood. On occasion, the close quarters and the impact of loss can produce raw feelings – like a religious version of the awful reality show, “Big Brother.” For the Medved boys, the chance of sharing all this time together proved precious and life-affirming --- helping us rediscover how much we have in common and how much, despite the vast geographic distances between us, we all remain our father’s sons. For me, the most difficult restriction of the mourning week involves shaving. With no reduction in stubble since receiving news of my dad’s death, my face feels grubby and scratchy and disgusting, and I’m sure I look like a big-time terrorist suspect -- though I don’t know because mirrors are covered in a house of mourning (in order to de-emphasize vanity). I keep rubbing the bristly growth on my cheeks as if that could make it go away and yearning for the moment (tomorrow) when I can finally trim my facial fuzz. Because I speak in public as part of my work (with two major lectures in Michigan and Chicago on Wednesday and Thursday night), most authorities accept the idea that I can shave to preserve my vaguely respectable appearance. Other mourners will wait a whole month (the thirty days, or shloshim, which represents the next stage of the grieving process) before they resort to a razor. During this week of receiving visitors and comforters, I’ve spoken with literally hundreds of people – some of them close family members and friends, other who are neighbors of my brother’s who I’ve never met before, still others who count as old friends who I hadn’t seen in twenty years or more. Some of those who’ve cycled through this house have been deeply devout, others proudly secular, still others disengaged or undecided about their relationship to God or to religious tradition. On the phone, I spoke with a Christian friend who wondered whether all the restrictions and regulations of Jewish practice didn’t seem burdensome, even obnoxious, at a time of grief and hurt and vulnerability. I explained that on the contrary, the confusion and shock and uncertainty associated with death makes the rules and traditions particularly welcome. Informed of the passing of a loved one, the normal reaction for most people would be, “What do I do now? Where do I go from here?” The traditional mourning process answers those questions directly and decisively. You’re reminded above all that you hardly count as the first person (or even the first in your family) to endure a troubling loss. The seven days following the burial serve as a solid bridge back to normal life, with each step specifically and clearly demarcated. The fellowship and focus should, ideally, bring families closer together, emphasizing precisely those values of community and continuity that my father devoted much of his life to advancing. Of course, my father’s loss impoverishes all his sons and admirers, but on another level, when I get up from the week of remembrance and return to my own precious family in the United States, I will have been undoubtedly enriched by the mourning process, for all its challenges and inconvenience.