Miriam Shaviv
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How we killed respect for the dead
Date: Friday, May 5th, 2007
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

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As Rivkah Luvitch approached the microphone to speak at the funeral of her father, renowned sociologist and Israel Prize laureate Charles Liebman, in September 2003, she was physically blocked by a representative from the local Israeli burial society.

“In Petach Tikvah,” he said, “women do not eulogise.”

“It was an unspeakably cruel act,” Luvitch told Yediot Achronot — and sued.

Last Monday, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the burial society violated the basic rights of women and ordered it to change its regulations immediately. Petach Tikvah was to be brought in line with the rest of Israel, where anyone — male or female, rabbi or layperson — can give a hesped, or eulogy.

What, then, might the Israeli court have made of the situation in Britain, where not only are women not allowed to speak at United Synagogue funerals, but nor is anyone one who lacks Orthodox ordination or the Chief Rabbi’s certificate?

This longstanding practice — it is not, as commonly held, a United Synagogue bylaw — has long struck me as disrespectful to both the dead and the mourners, and it is high time that the custom was changed here too.

According to the organisation’s head of burial, Melvyn Hartog, its purpose is threefold. First, to prevent funerals from overruning, since, with more than 1,000 funerals a year, even a 10-minute delay can cause scheduling havoc (although cemeteries across Israel and North America seem to cope). Second, to prevent non-Orthodox rabbis speaking at funerals run by an Orthodox institution. And third, to prevent funerals being abused by speakers making inappropriate comments, even if 99 out of 100 speakers would probably be completely unobjectionable.

This completely infantilises the community. The issue is not halachic, but rather one of English elitism and snobbery, as if hoi polloi — that is, you and me — cannot be trusted to say the right thing.

The perverse result is that instead of having something inappropriate said at one out of every 100 funerals, nothing really appropriate is said at 99 of them.

At almost every funeral I have been to in this country, the officiating rabbi has not known the deceased, at least not well.

In the worst case, a non-observant acquaintance of mine had died from a particularly aggressive disease in her mid-30s. She was universally known as Becky; the rabbi insisted on calling her, at her own funeral, “Rivkoh”.

He also made only one brief reference, at the very end of his eulogy, to her boyfriend, who had supported her throughout her illness and was most often the one taking physical care of her.

I know this is not what Becky would have wanted.

Mostly, though, the rabbis have delivered speeches that were bland and non-offensive — but not particularly memorable or meaningful either. How could they be, when they were not speaking from the heart? Some biographical details and three or four anecdotes supplied by the family about the deceased did not mask the fact that, in most cases, a similar speech could have been (and perhaps was) delivered about dozens of other people.

How different to the funerals I have been to in Israel and North America. At the Israeli funeral of a colleague, a man known for his brilliant sense of humour, one of my other co-workers stood up and told the gathering about some of the practical jokes they had played on each other. The room was rolling with laughter, and that was appropriate, because that is who my colleague was (I have no doubt he would have thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle).

Our dead similarly deserve to be spoken about in unique and intimate and powerful terms, by someone who cared about them.

Our mourners also deserve better. The funeral itself is an essential step in the grieving process for the bereaved, as it makes the death a reality. But so is the opportunity to speak publicly about your deceased spouse, parent or child, if you want to. It allows you to put your own inchoate feelings into words, and to make sure your loved one is done justice at this pivotal moment.

In a community where it has never been the custom for laypeople to eulogise, some people will feel reluctant to do so if the regulations change, and rabbis can always continue to speak on their behalf. But ask yourself this: would you like a stranger to be the only speaker at your funeral?

Miriam Shaviv is the JC’s Comment and Letters editor

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