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Modern Mourning: Vocal Sorrow to Quiet Comfort

August 7, 2008 By:
Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe
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The screams and wailing could be heard as far as the distant parking lot. A young orphan, I was frightened by the noise. I clung to my mother's and uncle's hands as we left the lot and neared the graves. Gazing through the iron gates of the cemetery, I could see the sources of the cries huddled in groups around burial sites.

Women screamed the names of the departed, and men draped over the tombstones with loud chanting and convulsive weeping. It was the High Holiday season, and the annual Kever Avot ("visiting the graves of relatives") accompanied the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies.

We soon formed our own family group as my relatives reunited for an annual ceremony of joint sorrow, mourning and social niceties. We greeted neighbors from adjoining areas, and noted absent members and added graves. There was a constant shifting of stance as newcomers squeezed between us and the crowded tombstones to begin their own shouted rituals. Self-appointed officiants darted from group to group, hoping to be hired for traditional prayers of remembrance. The opportunities were rare, as most mourners were conversant with the Hebrew and Aramaic of graveside rituals.

This scenario was not restricted to the cemetery. Funerals resounded with the same screams of agony. Shouted comments about the departed and personal grief raised the decibels of sound and even fury. It was not unusual for a mourner to drape himself/herself over the casket and berate the dead for leaving spouse, children, etc. Rabbis delivered long and emotional eulogies, often in Yiddish, designed to evoke unbridled emotions. The pungent odor of smelling salts often wafted over the room as the intensity was overwhelming.

The burial was programmed for the same catharsis. There was no gentle lowering of the casket to ground level with final shoveling waiting until the family had departed. The shattering sound of dirt banging on the casket was required; there was no soft sound of sand being placed gently by a trowel. Clothing, and not a ribbon, was torn as a symbol of loss. It was a social drama of intense and unabashed emotion, crafted to produce an outpouring of cathartic grief.

As a young rabbi in the 1950s, I still encountered remnants of those ear-shattering rites. However, the scenario began to change rapidly.

Ritual and liturgy no longer are designed for raw emotions; they now have to produce soft comfort. The decor of the funeral parlor is crafted specifically for quiet remembrance and subdued conversation.

The decibel count has been dramatically lowered; loud cries and weeping are embarrassing. I have seen a veteran of the old days being shushed by a younger relative as her voice rose above an acceptable level.

The eulogy is now designed to produce comfort, and the theme is expected to be a celebration of the life of the departed. Those changes apply also to the burial service as sounds and sights are more tranquil and calm. All of this now comes under the rubric of "consideration for the family."

My trip to the Fuller Street Cemetery, near Boston, is still an annual pilgrimage. However, I am the last of my generation. I stand alone before the graves of those who once were my companions around the family plot. Only I remember their living personalities. Their resting places are arraigned before me. The parking lot no longer exists; it is now an extension of the cemetery. I gaze beyond my family's burial lot. There is no empty ground. It is so still. The crowd is at rest.

Thomas Gray's Elegy describes the scene, " ... all the air a solemn stillness holds/Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight."

It is so quiet -- almost an eerie calm. Only the sound of a soft breeze rustles shrubs that outline the family plots. My prayers and tearful mourning are said in hushed tones. I yearn for the ancient sounds, for the voices and even the cries. I yearn for their presence.

Now, it is not the noise that is frightening. It is the silence.

Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe is rabbi emeritus of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.


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