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Monday, June 07, 2004

Messy

When I posted yesterday’s entry about obituaries, I had no idea that today I would be dealing with death.

A close friend, who moved to Israel with his family around the same time we did, lost his brother to a sudden, massive stroke. Just like that, in the blink of an eye, a family is making plans to bury a man (younger than me) who was at once husband, father, brother, son, and friend to a universe of people.

I left my office in Beer Sheva a couple of hours early and drove up north to the small community where the funeral was to take place. Israeli funerals, like most everything else here, are not the structured, somber affairs that I had attended in the states. There are no hushed, air-conditioned funeral chapels for the carefully choreographed death ritual. Things are messy.

Instead of the de rigeur American funeral attire of dark suits and somber dresses, people come to attend to death directly from home, from work, from life… dressed as they always dress: For life.

To my new ears, the customary quiet American statement, “I’m sorry for your loss”, seemed oddly inadequate. The 'sorry' seems designed to separate the speaker neatly from the mourner. So, instead I offered the common Israeli statement that translates roughly as, “I participate in your grief/misfortune”, which seems, by comparison, to use the word 'participate' to somehow join the speaker and the mourner. It is intrusive, and messy, and somehow exquisitely intimate.

A week ago I met a businessman across a conference table and began discussing the preliminary details of a multi-million dollar deal. He was a stranger and the discussions were neat and orderly and clean. As I stood in a strange town a week later waiting for a funeral to begin, this businessman approached me out of the crowd and tearfully explained that the deceased had been his neighbor… his best friend… his study partner.

Such is life (and death) in a tiny country. Nothing is neat, and no two worlds are distinct. Generals and Knesset Members call each other by preschool nicknames… and often act as though they are still on the playground. Many of them have danced at each other's weddings and shared tears at funerals. Even if they came from different communities, they know enough childhood secrets about one another to be as cruel as siblings. Maybe this is why Israeli political discourse is so emotional… so personal… so messy.

And next week I will sit at a conference table, across from a man who cried on my shoulder. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! We should be able to look at each other with cold detachment… playing the game cleanly, with rules. Instead, we share a tear-stained history…our worlds have overlapped and mingled. I am at once at an advantage and disadvantage. Everything here is so messy.

When the service begins, there is no funeral director and no staff oozing silently over immaculate carpets in polished shoes. There is no wooden coffin to offer misdirection or act as an oblique metaphor for death. Instead, the body, wrapped lovingly in its shrouds, is carried in on a stretcher by the earnest hands of friends. Death is carried in... and it looks like a body. Everyone is forced to confront the messy reality we call mortality. The friends and family who eulogize the deceased speak directly to the living… knowing full well that their words also fall on newly deaf ears.

There are no shiny hearses or orderly processions. The crowd walks clumsily behind the body as it is carried to a waiting ambulance. At the cemetery there is no manicured lawn… and there are no Astroturf mats to hide the dirt or frame the hole. The tombs are stone and the cemetery is dirt, and the hole in the ground looks like a wound that will never heal. The body is placed gently in the ground, and those who knew him best take turns with the shovel, covering the body… filling the grave. It is messy, but like life and love, hard work is necessary in order to heal the wound.

Posted by David Bogner on June 7, 2004 | Permalink

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I think I was at the same funeral..I am close friends with the deceased's brother Pesach.

Small world.

Posted by: Dave | Jun 7, 2004 6:15:08 PM

Yes...Pessach is the close friend I mentioned at the start of the second paragraph. We lived near one another in Fairfield, CT, and our families moved here to Israel within a week or two of each other.

See what a small, messy country we live in?

May we all be comforted...

Posted by: David | Jun 7, 2004 6:45:08 PM

David,
Ani mishtatefet b'zarrecha.
And you're right, Hebrew looks like the way to say it to join rather than be remote.
This year was the first that I felt the dispersion of living in the States when one of the members of my garin died in LA. We didn't all come within 6 hours (nor was the funeral held that afternoon) from all points in North America. Only email and phone calls; and that's hardly sufficient.

I hope the rest of your week is more peaceful.

Kris Peleg

Posted by: Kris | Jun 7, 2004 11:51:45 PM

David,
I buried my mother in October, and it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Mostly b/c everyone seemed so detached. It did not seem real. I never actually had to "touch" the death. I attended one levaya in Israel, and it was completely different. Seeing a body in tachrichim that was still identifiable as a body was an experience I will never forget. Your article was insightful, and made me think about loss in general.
may we only hear of smachot in the future.
-Faye

Posted by: Faye | Jun 9, 2004 4:53:38 PM

Faye...Ani Mishtatef B'Tzarech.

Posted by: David | Jun 9, 2004 5:52:02 PM

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