PARSHAS VAYECHI 5778
THE NEW YORK TIMES
It’s My Funeral and I’ll Serve Ice Cream if I Want To
By JOHN LELAND, July 20, 2006
ROBERT TISCH, who ran the Loews Corporation, had a marching band at his memorial service and a packed house at Avery Fisher Hall, all orchestrated by one of New York’s most prominent party planners. Estée Lauder’s had waiters passing out chocolate-covered marshmallows on silver trays. At Nan Kempner’s memorial, at Christie’s auction house, guests received a CD of Mozart’s Requiem. Ms. Kempner had wanted a live performance of the Requiem, but the logistics — full orchestra, chorus and soloists — were too much.
At a time when Americans hire coaches to guide their careers and retirements, tutors for their children, personal shoppers for their wardrobes, trainers for their abs, whisperers for their pets and — oh, yes — wedding planners for their nuptials, it makes sense that some funerals are also starting to benefit from the personal touch. As members of the baby boom generation plan final services for their parents or themselves, they bring new consumer expectations and fewer attachments to churches, traditions or organ music — forcing funeral directors to be more like party planners, and inviting some party planners to test the farewell waters…
“Baby boomers are all about being in control,” said Mr. Duffey… What they want, he said, are services that reflect their lives and tastes. One family asked for a memorial service on the 18th green of their father’s favorite golf course, “because that’s where dad was instead of church on Sunday mornings, so why are we going to church,” Mr. Duffey said. “Line up his buddies, and hit balls.” Another wanted his friends to ride Harleys down his favorite road, scattering his ashes…
Mr. Biggins said funeral homes can do anything that party planners can do. At his own funeral home in Rockland, Mass., Mr. Biggins arranged a service for Harry Ewell, a man who had been an ice cream vendor. Mr. Ewell’s old ice cream truck led the funeral procession and dispensed Popsicles at the end. “If you call that over the top, then I guess I’m guilty,” Mr. Biggins said. “But our business reflects society as a whole. Today’s consumer wants things personal, specific to their lifestyle, whether it’s highlighting a person’s passion for golf or celebrating someone’s deep devotion to knitting or needlepoint” …
After the Torah records the passing of Yaakov Avinu, the pasuk states: “Yosef commanded his servants, the healers, to embalm his father.” Rav Moshe Sternbuch explains that Yosef made to sure that only those who he felt were trustworthy to deal with his father’s body in a manner permitted by Torah law, were permitted to touch the body. The embalming process performed with Yaakov’s body only utilized methods that weren’t at all invasive, or made any marks on the body. Only external mummifying was performed. The usual practices performed by the ancient Egyptians however, are prohibited by Torah law, and are a terrible disgrace of the body. It is impossible to entertain the notion that Yosef would have allowed any such thing to happen to the body of his saintly father.
Part of the richness of our traditions includes the rituals and laws we adhere to with regards to the final dignity accorded to a body after death.
When Haman decreed mass genocide of the Jewish People, it included incinerating the dead bodies. That nefarious objective reflects a true idea – that even the body of a Jew retains a degree of holiness, after the living soul had departed from it.
The Torah relates that the funeral procession for Yaakov Avinu was “a great and very imposing eulogy”. In explaining the purpose of eulogies, Shulchan Aruch states: “The mitzvah is that he (the eulogizer) will raise his voice to recount about him (the deceased) words that break the heart, to increase crying.”
Our world doesn’t like to cry or shed tears. We view it as weak and we do our utmost to hide all traces of vulnerability, so we can maintain a false veneer of perfection and blissfulness. We distract ourselves from pain and suffering, out of fear that we cannot handle facing reality. Halacha however, demands that we confront the truth and come to terms with the painful reality and magnanimity of our loss.
In fact, this is part of the great merit we can give the deceased – to be inspired by his good deeds, and by the legacy he is leaving behind.
The purpose of a funeral and the eulogies are not to mark what the deceased did, as much as it is to recount who/what the deceased was. In his eulogy, the eulogizer is challenged to convey what kind of person the deceased was, how he lived his life, and what were the things that made him special.
It’s a somewhat unnerving thought that most people are not defined by what they spend much of their time doing. If a person spent most of his life selling and trading stocks, that doesn’t define what made him unique as a person.
As we usher in Shabbos Kodesh each week, we sing in Lecha Dodi that Shabbos was “last in deed, first in thought”. In other words, although Shabbos was only brought into the world after the entirety of creation was complete, Hashem’s original motive in creating the world was to create Shabbos – a day of connection and sanctity.
Productive people live their lives in a manner of “last in deed, first in thought”. They have goals and spiritual dreams which they look to accomplish. They try to live their life based on those original goals.
It’s not a coincidence that the parsha which contains the death of Yaakov is called “Vayechi” – Yaakov lived. One of our traditions is that one’s soul transcends death through the legacy they leave behind. Chazal say that Yaakov Avinu never died. One of the many explanations offered is that he lives on in all of us, his descendants, the bearers of his legacy.
“A great and very imposing eulogy”
“Last in deed, first in thought”