Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Way of All Things

I wouldn't say I enjoy funerals, even if I did, but I consider them an opportunity. They are an opportunity to reflect, to learn, and to grow.

I've been to quite a few funerals this year, and will probably continue to do so, not just because I have a lot of friends, or because I'm a particular age, but mainly because I belong to several social and community circles.

Funerals are the ultimate reflection of community. They are never pre-scheduled, frequently at inconvenient hours, announced almost exclusively by word of mouth, and the person being honored often can't ensure that certain guests get the invitation. Despite all of this, universally, and miraculously, almost everyone seems to get enough notice and attend the event.

Funeral attendance is a telling reflection of a person's life and social status. The largest funeral I attended was of a woman who was a fairly well-known figure in her community. When her husband passed, a year later, his was a tenth of the size. Clearly, if the order had been reversed, things would have looked quite different. Funerals for the young are always crowded with peers and parents' friends. Once you pass the age of 90, even your younger friends may not be around to see you off.

What I have learned, above all, is that funerals are truly about community. The attendance at your funeral reflects directly the attendance in your life.

If you have lived your life, as most of us do, as an individual, you belong to two main community groups: your family and your work communities. Typically your friends are individuals, or a loosely-connected group.

By nature, we feel alone much of the time, even when we are surrounded by people. Think of yourself at any type of social event. There you are, surrounded by people. Either you have found the group of people you know and will stick to for most of the event, or you are doing your best to make conversation with new people, or debating whether you should go say hi to that person you think you know from somewhere... you get the picture. This is how our lives look most of the time. We are surrounded by people, yet our individual life seems to be flowing in its own solitary direction.

By being active in an organized community, we can ease the feeling of being alone. For me, that community is at my synagogue, Hod v'Hadar, a place where you have the feeling of togetherness. Most of the funerals I go to, in fact, are for members or relations of the people in that community. It's not spoken and not questioned. We simply attend all of one another's life cycle events. I can't think of any other place I've been where the community is so solid and so simple.

To tell the truth, it took me quite a while to accept this. Today, we have very few structures that are permanent in our life, and so few communities that support us unquestioningly. It's astonishing, really. I wonder how much life used to be like that, when we lived in small communities, that we simply had to accept everyone in the community, go to all events, and support one another however we could. It seems the more we have materially, the less we connect.

It's telling that this level of support happens in a framework where there is a specified structure for face-to-face meeting at a minimum of once a week. It's hard to imagine any online community with this kind of commitment. Indeed, it's quite clear to me that even my most intimate online friends are not likely to be in a physical position to attend my funeral. Most of my online friends wouldn't even relate to who my family is, if one of those people should go the way of all things.

In short, there's not a day that goes by that I am not grateful for the real-life community I have in my congregation. As well-connected as I may be, and as many close friends as I may have, there is simply nothing to compare with a community with norms and rituals set up to accept, support and handle the inevitable ebb and flow of life.


Dave E said...

You are so blessed to have a community where the members unquestioningly reach out to and embrace one another. Most meaningful blog piece I've read in months! And so appropriate for Succot week too, namely your focus on what's of truly enduring and ultimate value.

Rebecca Rachmany said...

Thank you Dave!