This past week I went to the funeral of my last uncle. Growing up, I took my family for granted. I assumed my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins would always be there. We tend to assume our family will always be there. Kohelet 7:2 says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning Than to go to a house of feasting, Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart.”
My uncle was a good man. He was always there to help if you needed him. My cousin rightly called him a problem solver. One year I wanted to surprise my mom for her birthday and fly in to see her. I couldn’t ask my dad to pick me up at the airport because since he is deaf, the only way I could communicate with him on the phone was through my mother. To make this a surprise, I needed someone else to come get me. I called my uncle. Without hesitation, he was there, and picked me up. I was waiting on my parent’s porch when they arrived home. It was a great surprise. My uncle made it happen.
The rabbi at the funeral spoke about my uncle’s being a technology expert, as well as an aficionado of classical music and opera. My uncle was also a devoted father and husband, taking care of my aunt, who was disabled since her childhood. He was detailed and exacting and worthy of respect. He suffered with cancer the last couple of years of his life, but he fought it with his last ounce of strength.
The thing that I found difficult, was that so few people attended his funeral. Apart from the family, I don’t think there were 15 people who came. My grandmother used to say that the older you get, the less people will attend your funeral.
Why is it that when someone dies, we don’t go to funerals? The Holy Scriptures tell us that there is wisdom in the house of mourning. The death of someone makes us take life to heart. Our culture has sanitized life so that when someone is dying, we put them in hospitals, because we don’t want them around us when they are dying. We don’t like to think about death, let alone be around it. When someone is dying, we put them in the hospital, stick tubes in them and wait for the inevitable. When they die, we just skip the funeral and we don’t have to deal with death at all. It’s like when the family dog dies, you tell your kids the dog got sick and we sent them to a farm where they can run and play with other dogs. We don’t like to deal with the unpleasantness of death.
What we forget is how comforting it is to grieving people when you bother to show up for a funeral. It tells them you cared about them and about the deceased. The sages said one of the great mitzvot for which you lose nothing in this world and yet have great blessing in the world to come is “escorting the dead,” going to their funeral, and visiting the grieving afterward. Nothing says you care like being there. When you can’t come, its good to send food, because food comforts, but when you can be there, being there is better than food.
Sometimes we don’t show up because we don’t want to deal with the emotions of grieving relatives, or with our own emotions, but the good it does for them, and for ourselves outweighs those emotions. I have felt estranged from some of my relatives over the years, but when I went to my uncle’s funeral, that estrangement was gone. It heals, it comforts, and says more than any food or flowers can do.
It does us well to remember the frailty of life, and the importance of living our lives to our best potential, valuing the loved ones we have. It really is better to be in the house of mourning than the house of mirth. Do a mitzvah and go to a funeral or at least pay a shiva call.