My wife and I recently celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary. Aside from our wedding being old enough to vote, it also is a demarcation that we’ve lived half our wedded life without kids and the other half as parents with a family. One daughter with us, one son with God. What we continue to be are committed interfaith spouses. I am Catholic. My wife is Jewish.
This past weekend, we traveled up to our hometowns of New Jersey and then to New York to pay our respects at a Catholic memorial service and later at a Jewish funeral. There is something intensely true and paradoxical about dealing with the deceased during the Easter Season. While liturgically the time from Good Friday grief to Easter Sunday joy is brief, in actuality, for the living, it takes longer than that. Similarly, for Jews, this is a sacred month in which the great feast of Passover is celebrated. It too is a season of great joy at the wonder and power of God who delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, parted the waters of the Red Sea, gave the Torah at Sinai and brought God’s people to the Promised Land.
So the process of grieving and gratitude involves journeying. At its most basic, it involves the journey of memory. But memory involves time and place, as well as relationships. And as we come together to remember the deceased, those who gather mean something, and what forms in those pockets of celebrations and afterwards says something about the way forward for the living as they continue the journey onward that will ultimately reunite them with the one who has gone ahead. Death into life.
There were some differences in the gatherings. Some were circumstantial, some religiously based. In New Jersey, the Catholic memorial service was inside the home of the parents of the deceased. Brian was the eldest brother of Tom, my best friend from high school. He had passed away in March after a long period of cancer treatment. He was already preparing for the end, when I last saw Tom during the Christmas holidays. When Tom first shared with me the news, I tried to think of the last time I had seen Brian. It was too long ago to remember clearly. So I thought instead of what was the best memory I might have for him. I told Tom, “In all likelihood, your brother probably bought me my first six-pack of beer.” Tom laughed.
His parents’ home is literally two blocks down the street from where I had grown up. The house sits across the lake from the parish church. A deacon came to the home for a brief prayer service, followed by a short memorial. The house itself was still very similar to my memories of it in the 1980s and the 1990s when I was last there.
Although I didn’t know many of the people who had come to the memorial, I knew the parents and children. But many had never met my wife or my child. This had as much to do with the time since I last lived there and also to do with strained relationships between Tom and his family. Both of us had a hard time with family (for different reasons) when we got married. So when the time came for my family to leave, Tom followed behind. He invited us to join his family for a late lunch, but we had to go on our way to our next visit.
In Staten Island, we stayed overnight with Ed, my running friend. We did not have much time together before my wife, Eileen, and I needed to get up and travel to the cemetery. At one point, Ed, Eileen, and I sat at the table after dinner. Ed, still grieving over his close neighbor who killed himself late last year. Eileen, preparing for Scott’s funeral, someone she last saw at her 39th birthday. And me, still piecing together these passings in a season of transformation.
I heard talk about anguish and grief. I heard about trauma. I heard about taking it one day at a time, one run at a time, one case at a time. I heard promises to reach out for support. There was advice to seek professional help. We don’t hear about these parts in the Gospels. But, I don’t have a hard time imagining such talk for apostles who wept bitter tears, had utter disbelief, ran scared and naked into the night…or, who like Ed’s friend, hung himself.
We look up the Jewish cemetery for directions. It’s a place that offers the services of chesed shel emet. The website describes this kindness as a ritual that extends loving charity, dignity and the last gestures of love to deceased members with Jewish families who have trouble covering the costs of funeral expenses. Some might think of it as a pauper’s funeral. I preferred to think of it as honoring the covenantal promise: We bury our dead.
The gathering at the cemetery was more blue-collar and working class than the memorial the day before. But there were just as many people. More grey-haired, with less children present. The entire service began and ended with us standing outside on cold ground under sunny but chilly spring skies.
My wife remembered a few faces and re-made introductions to people she had last seen 2 decades or more ago. Two rabbis led us in an abbreviated service, explaining that since this was the month of Nisan, a month of joy, we limit our obvious sadness and grief. Instead of processing to the graveside and stopping 7 times to recollect and eulogize, and be moved to tears, we walked directly to the plot reciting Psalm 91 (in Hebrew). Christians would recognize this Psalm as the song “On Eagle’s Wings,” which is a popular song used in my parish at funerals. It doesn’t necessarily conjure up images of Heaven’s Gate, St. Peter, Angels and harps, but it does unfold a powerful image of what we might expect of God’s promise to us on the other side. It might well have been images Jesus himself considered on his own journey from death to life.
At the grave we recited Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” I heard this Psalm sung in Hebrew at my own son’s funeral, and have sung it many times since. I was surprised that I knew it in Hebrew about as well as I know the mass in Spanish. The original language has become second nature to me. Afterwards, we recited the Kaddish, or mourner’s prayer, which does not mention death at all, but only how great God is and worthy of praise. I pray or hear this yearly at Yahrzeits (Jewish memorials) and during Yom Kippur services.
When it came time to lower the casket, people were given instructions concerning the burial. The act is both required, but also resisted. We want to bury the dead, but we are also sad to have to do this. One shovels the dirt with mixed emotion: the soil is turned over, lifted and begrudgingly falls into the grave. The shovel is not handed to the next person, but stuck back into the pile. This is not work that we want to do, it is work we must do with a heavy heart. Afterward, we formed two rows. Scott’s father walked between us making public his grief and turmoil. We, surrounding him, made public our presence and support for him on his journey back from death to life.
Walking back to the cemetery entrance, we had a chance to speak and meet with more people. Although I had only met Scott once in the past, I learned so much more about him and his impact on my wife and sister-in-law’s lives. I learned that their lives go all the way back to their childhood. Some of their first summer and full-time jobs were through mutual connections. It’s not clear how or why their lives grew apart: college and graduate school, marriages, etc. Though it was all a long time ago, it was also still a part of who they are and where they came from. And true too, one of them—as with many—is no longer here with us now.
Death into Life: Journey Home
The Gospel reading for this weekend was about how Peter, Andrew, James and John had returned to Galilee to fish after Jesus’ death. They had caught nothing all night, but in the morning they encountered a stranger on the shore who advised them to cast their nets on the other side. When their nets began to fill, they remembered the last time this had happened. Peter jumped overboard and swam to shore. By the time the others came ashore, the stranger invited them to have breakfast, breaking bread and fish to share with them. No one asked him who he was, but they all knew it was the Risen Lord!
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who is famous for her research on the stages of grief notes in this passage that at some point, the grieving have to go back to their work. They go back to doing what they used to do before that person had died. It is not until they go back to what they were doing that they can experience the “stranger” as the new person and both share in life that is now changed.
Certainly that is what happened at both these places. We encountered people who were experiencing a disruption in their lives. We ourselves were also a disruption in their memory and everyday existence (and our own). In some senses we were strangers to each other until we recognized both who we were from back then and who we are now. In accepting who we are now, we also have to accept the gap and loss: “I’m sorry it’s been so long…I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.” And we also have to accept the parting, “It’s a shame he’s not here now…especially now that EVERYBODY is here.”
I am not entirely sure what Jews hope for at the end of time or what they make of this idea of death into life. Still, Catholics and Jews do share the emotional impact of gatherings and what come from sharing stories and memories. We enjoy food together in good times and in bad. And when we depart, we carry with us a piece of the reason why we gathered as part of a promise to the future. We pledge to make that a part of our lives when our lives “get back to normal.”
As someone who has stood and more importantly prayed in both Jewish and Christian places of grief and loss, it has become normal for me to think of it this way: We believe in a God who is both with us and with those who are no longer with us. What an awesome and mysterious God that is who can hold such things together. This has been of great comfort for me. I am a recipient of chesed shel emet. I would not be here today without the kindest that was shown to me by strangers when I buried my first born son, let alone the life, death and resurrection of God’s only Son.
We are a married couple old enough to vote. We are Jewish and Catholic. We are a family wandering. We are a place of reconciliation, mercy, and love. We are God’s relationship alive and seeking to join heaven and earth.
“Though I walk in the valley of death, I have no fear, for you are with me”
“We follow in the Master’s footsteps.”
“He who makes Peace in His heights, may he make peace upon us…”
- How has this Easter Season opened you up to be more merciful and accepting of life’s trials, sufferings, and shortcomings?
- Are there relationships that have lingered and can be repaired or reconciled starting now?
© Copyright 2016 Jay Cuasay
Photography, Death to Life to Bunnies, Jay Cuasay, May 2014. All Rights Reserved.