Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reflections on an Intense Day

If I had to rate my Wednesday on a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a 9. We buried David's grandmother yesterday. She strongly influenced me, and I wrote about my deep feelings for her here. She died at the end of October, but because she was having a funeral with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and the men and women dying in our current wars get first priority (rightly), this was the soonest Grandma could be buried. My in-laws were staying with us; they are perfect house guests, but having any house guests comes with challenges, so the week was already not normal for us. Tuesday night was Grandma's wake at a funeral home. The closed coffin was in the room with us, and it was mostly like a party without any food or drinks. People laughed and caught up with relatives they haven't seen in a while. A few people told mostly-funny stories about Grandma.

Since I didn't react emotionally to the coffin in the funeral home on Tuesday, I was surprised by the cry that welled up in my throat on Wednesday morning, when we arrived at the church for her funeral mass, and I saw her coffin draped in the American flag, lying in the back of the hearse. The cry left my throat by the time her pallbearers, her grandsons, had carried the coffin into the rear of the sanctuary, where the priest covered the casket in a cloth the same color and with the same pattern as the ones on his vestments.

Grandma was a devout Catholic (she was even a member of the perpetual adoration society), so I was glad that she had a service that reflected her beliefs. However, it was a little surreal on many levels: first, the fact that with the exception of one Grandma's sons (and his wife), the rest of the family are ex-Catholics. There were not very many people taking communion at this mass. But what really made it surreal was how antithetical the tone/content of the mass was when compared with Judaic beliefs and philosophies about death. There was a lot of liturgy talking about what a happy day it was, and much to my shock, included a lot of hallel (!!!), in English, of course. Hallel is a Jewish prayer composed of Psalms 113-118 that is said on joyous occasions like Jewish holy days, or Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month, when we welcome the new moon. Hearing it said at a funeral was the spiritual equivalent of having a bucket of ice water tossed on you. It really highlighted the difference in religious philosophy between Christianity and Judaism: Judaism thinks that death sucks and finds no joy in it whatsoever. This is one of the reasons that it is in poor taste to send flowers to Jewish mourners. That said, I think the mass was a fitting way to say goodbye to Grandma, and it certainly would have met her approval. All of her granddaughters who were in town for the funeral participated in the church service, and my mother-in-law delivered a lovely eulogy.

It was perfect weather for a funeral: cold and rainy. The rain turned to hail during the short ceremony at Arlington. Attending a military funeral is intense in its own right; I can't imagine someone not being moved by it. I started to cry, again, when I saw the horse-drawn limbers and caissons -- I should've taken David's advice to bring two handkerchiefs instead of my one, which was soaked half-way through the mass. The firing of rifles, playing of taps, and folding of the flag covering the casket -- all by other sailors who performed perfectly and in unity even as they were pelted, hard, with hail, was profound, but not as profound as the relief of Grandma finally being buried next to Grandpa, and her son, Michael. One of David's cousins handed out roses, which we all laid on the coffin as we touched it and whispered hurried goodbyes; they were hurried because Arlington officials want you away from the grave as soon as possible. As soon as the service is over, they ask you to return to your vehicles. I really liked that option of going up to the casket, and it's one I've never had at a Jewish funeral. As a Jew, it feels deeply wrong to me to leave a casket above ground; people at a Jewish funeral all pitch in and shove dirt on the coffin. It felt weird to me at Grandpa's funeral to walk away from his casket, and it felt weird to me yesterday. As soon as the family cleared out, Arlington's crew was there to lower the casket and fill in the grave.

It was touching to see Grandma's kids, grandchildren, and great grandchildren support each other and celebrate her complicated, but authentic life: a life really devoted to service of God, her family, and her country, probably in that order. After the funeral, we gathered at David's cousins' house, which felt satisfying, but soon we had to brave the storm to go home. A 22 minute drive took us two hours, but thank God, we made it home safely. To say that the day was emotionally draining was an understatement: we all had headaches and sore eyes from crying all day, and by 9:30 p.m. I felt like I had run a marathon.

Today has been all about rest and revitalization. My massage therapist and I mutually agreed to cancel my appointment today. I showered, prayed, meditated, did my physical therapy exercises, roasted a chicken and brussel sprouts for dinner, took Kacy on a short walk, did one load of laundry, took very few phone calls (although I chatted with my sister for almost one hour), and watched "The Girl Who Played With Fire" on my Netflix instant que. Oh, and now I'm blogging. And that's it! I needed to have a self-care day to decompress from the tensions of the week. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which might be the subject of my next blog post.

1 comment:

Stef said...

Sarah, I'm sorry to hear of your emotional and draining day; but am glad you got to feel (vs. be numb), and that you are taking care of yourself as well. One question I do have (that we can discuss live): Why do Jews think that "death sucks"? (To use your words.)