The father of a man I work with passed away yesterday morning and because the Jewish religion requires burial to happen as soon as possible, the funeral took place today.
Brian, whose father passed away, and I are not close. He’s a bit gruff and grumpy – calls a spade a spade and, as you know, not everyone likes being called a spade. He has a habit of ticking people off. I’m not sure he means to. I’m not sure either that he doesn’t mean to. In the very few interactions I have had with him, we have always got on pretty well and for the past nine years he has given me a Christmas cake and, once or twice, packs of lovely greeting cards that his wife makes. The gifts just appear unannounced on my desk and I usually reciprocate with a cordial thank you as we pass each other in the corridor.
Anyway, back to the funeral. It is not the first Jewish funeral that I have been to, so there were no surprises as far as the traditional ceremony goes. I didn’t remember the hill on which the Jewish section of West Park Cemetery sits, being quite so steep and I was glad I wore comfortable shoes . I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many people from the office pitched up – Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jew – to pay their respects and offer their condolences to a colleague.
I don’t recall ever noticing the sound of the earth hitting the coffin before. It sounded so ceremoniously final. I watched Brian shovel some dirt into the grave and tried to imagine what he was thinking. He’s not a religious man, in fact, rumour has it, he’s an atheist. When I first heard that, I thought it was strange for a Jew to be an atheist. I’m not sure why that should seem anymore unusual than anyone else being an atheist but it just did. I wondered how someone who does not believe in God copes with the loss of a loved one.
Today is Tisha B’av – a day of mourning the destruction of the temples, both of which fell on the ninth day of Av, as well as other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on this day in the Jewish calendar – and thus, the Rabbi explained, a eulogy was not permitted. In its dignified simplicity, the funeral was very moving and rather beautiful. One only had to look around at some of South Africa’s Who’s Who gathered around the grave, to know that this man was, in whatever way, influential and yet, there were no airs and graces in the send off – it was almost a subtle way of saying that no matter who you are or who you know, death is the ultimate equaliser.