I went to my first Israeli funeral as a mourner today. The Arabs say the Jews love life; I was curious to see how they conduct burials.
We gathered inside the main gate of a Tel Aviv cemetery, about a hundred family members and friends of the deceased, the mother of a colleague of mine.
The dress code was informal. None of the men wore a suit or a tie, and only a few women were in black. The men wore yarmulkes, the skull cap worn by religious Jews and at religious ceremonies, and a few had added baseball caps for protection from the sun. The women were bareheaded.
Condolences were exchanged before the crowd moved slowly towards the body, which was on a bier covered with a black cloth emblazoned with a silver six-pointed Star of David. It was overlooked by a sign in Hebrew forbidding anyone with the family name of Cohen to go further inside the cemetery. (By tradition Cohens have duties in temples and may not be contaminated by the dead.)
Same prayers for thousands of years
A cemetery rabbi said a short prayer while everyone stood in silence, and then made a small rip in the shirt of the dead woman's son. He in turn cut his father's shirt, and female family members did the same to each other's clothing. I recall biblical stories mentioning the rending of garments.
The body was transferred to a handcart and wheeled off down a shady lane to its resting place. The mourners followed in twos and threes in an informal procession and gathered around the fresh grave.
The rabbi and his assistant lifted the body and lowered it into the ground. There was another prayer, the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning. Some parts were sung by the rabbi and answered occasionally with a word from the mourners. I felt a brief tug of history hearing the prayer Jews have uttered for thousands of years.
My colleague's brother and the dead woman's sister spoke brief eulogies.
Then the rabbi shoveled earth in the grave before handing the shovel to a male mourner who continued covering the body. Men stepped forward to take a turn. Some placed small stones on the mound of earth. Others laid flowers.
Condolences were offered again to the family and then the service was over. It took less than an hour.
Different ways of honoring dead
Walking through the neat rows of tombstones to the exit I recalled attending funerals in distant lands. They were all so different…state occasions in world capitals, colorful processions in tropical countries, solemn family affairs in Europe, lonely burials at sea and military funerals in forests and deserts and mountains.
This one felt modest. And somehow, under blue skies in the Holy Land, appropriate.