Saturday, February 22, 2014

Reflections On Two Funerals

Beth-El, Harrisonburg
Yesterday at 11 am I attended the funeral and burial of Milton Perlman, a long time member of the Beth-El congregation in Harrisonburg. At 1:30 I was at a similar service for Irvin Koogler, a lifelong member at the Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite Church near Dayton.

One would expect a Reformed Jewish memorial service and that of a very conservative Mennonite congregation to be a study in contrast. But I found surprising similarities.

An Old Order graveside service
While the Older Order service was attended by hundreds rather than dozens of people, both involved many fellow members of the congregation and community who were not blood relatives. There was a sense of group identity and a shared faith that each of these minority groups celebrated, one that went far beyond family ties. There was also a community meal provided afterwards for mourners in each of the congregations. 

Both services were solemn and traditional in their own ways, and each included praise as well as lament, hopefulness as well as grieving. But the most notable similarities had to do with their burial rituals.

In each case the casket was of very plain wooden design. At the Beth-El cemetery, the coffin was laid in the grave without any protective vault, and as the rabbi read and sang words from the Hebrew Bible, friends and family members, by turn, each took a spade full of raw earth to cover the remains of their loved one. There was no attempt to shield mourners from the reality of physical decay, of dust returning to dust, earth to earth.

The Mennonites did use a simple wooden vault, also very subject to decay, and members likewise took turns covering the grave, surrounded by several hundred attenders singing songs of hope and resurrection--in four-part harmony--as they did so.

Needless to say, I was moved by these expressions of faith, hope and love. Though it may seem that the two faith traditions are worlds apart, and the deceased very different from each other--one a JMU professor and the other a poultry and dairy farmer--in death we are all laid to rest in common ground.

May the earth be soft under you when you rest upon it,
tired at the end of the day.

May the earth rest easy over you when at the last you lie under it.

May the earth rest so lightly over you
that your spirit may be out from under it quickly,
and up, and off, and on its way to God.

from An Irish Blessing, a Photographic Interpretation, by Cyil A. and Renee Travis Reilly
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