Year-End, End-of Life Rituals

I enjoy perusing the New York Times’ year-end top-ten lists of books and movies even if I’ve read or seen few of those listed. More moving and enlightening for me is “The Lives They Lived,” an end-of-year Sunday Magazine dedicated to some of the famous and not-so-famous who died over the year.
It’s often fascinating and moving to read obituaries: what didn’t I know about well-known people? What did this little-known person accomplish, and against what odds? How was this person a pioneer, that one a great team player?
Since I started serving the Beth Judah/Shirat Hayam community some four-and-a-half years ago, I have conducted more than 50 funerals. I have met some fascinating deceased people…by association, through the stories told by their children, grandchildren and friends.
I learned of challenges and triumphs; aspirations realized or thwarted; blessings or fracturing of family; joys and sorrows; peaceful, timely deaths; slow, steady declines. When I meet with family members before the funeral, I try to minimize the focus on the dying and turn the conversation to the life of their loved one.
And what lives! A woman who, with the staunch support of her extended family, overcame physical disabilities to lead a full and fulfilling life. A man with irrepressible curiosity and a vast wealth of knowledge who freely offered (often unbidden) advice.
Others…A 98 year-old who had been a “Top Secret Rosie,” a female “computer” working on ENIAC, the first super computer. A man, just a couple of years older than I, who was remembered most for his kindness and generous spirit; another who, through his work at the National Institutes of Health, sought to help people even as he juggled a complicated family life.
They were variously described as quiet and non-competitive; devoted spouse; loving parent; driven to succeed, to transcend modest beginnings; proud of military service; dedicated to education; of deep faith even if not religiously observant.
They contributed to synagogue community through time, money, social involvement, singing, leadership, committee work, gardening. They were married 25 to 70 years. They had children, some of whom were estranged from them and others who were devoted to their well-being, some who don’t speak with one another and others who spoke about their parent with one voice and heart.
In closing every eulogy I recite, “יְהִי זִכְרוֹ/רָה בָּרוּךְ yehi zichro/ra baruch / may the memory of ____ bring blessing to the lives of those who knew and loved him/her.” For every family I have come to know, I believe that the enduring memories enrich their lives.
The sage Ben Zoma (in Pirkei Avot 4:1) offered this teaching: “אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר? הֵשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ Eizehu ashir? Hasameiach b’chelko / Who is wealthy? The one who is content with one’s lot.” May we find contentment in our lives, and may we bring blessing to others well before it is our time to be remembered.
Best wishes for 2019!