Uncle Ben, my mother’s oldest sibling, outlived all his brothers and sisters. I remembered on the way to his funeral that, ironically, Aunt Mona, my mother’s little sister, was the first of the siblings to die.
Mona was born when my mother, who had been the youngest, was twelve. She wasn’t an accident but a “surprise,” very much the baby of the family, especially pretty and favored, but also suffering from juvenile diabetes, which eventually took her life at the age of forty-nine.
Before Mona died, her husband, Herbie, had become a sold-out believer in Yeshua. He didn’t fool around with Messianic Jewish terminology. He was saved, born again, and eager to get others saved as well. Once, Uncle Herbie had to run out to get some milk or something, and popped back in a few seconds after leaving, saying he’d forgotten his Bible. Mona said, “Herb, why do you need your Bible? You’re just going to the local 7-11!” “I know, but there might be someone there I need to witness to.”
So when Mona died, Herbie called me to do the funeral, because he saw it as an opportunity to tell the whole family about Jesus. He was sure that Mona had accepted the Lord before she died and wanted everyone to know about it. His kids were not so sure, and in fact felt it was unlikely their mother would ever do such a thing. My father called me when I got to Uncle Herbie’s to tell me how hard Mona’s death was on my mother, who always had a special place for Mona in her heart. He said the family was worried about something happening at the funeral that would add to their grief. And then, uncharacteristically for my father, he said, “But I’m sure you’ll know how to do the right thing.”
OK, so here’s another ethical question. Tradition provides two guides for our behavior during the time of bereavement, termed in the Aramaic of the Talmud yekara d’shikhiba, or honor for the deceased, and yekara d’hayya, honor for the living, which usually is expressed in comfort and support for the family. As in all our traditions, of course, there is the underlying theme of honor to God as well, which is heightened as we contemplate eternity in the face of death. So here’s the ethical dilemma—do I put comfort for Uncle Herbie, who desired up-front testimony of Yeshua, ahead of comfort for the rest of the family, who would take any word about Yeshua at this moment like a slap in the face? Do I include Herbie’s assurance that Mona had salvation through Yeshua as part of honoring her memory, or leave it out as an imposition on her memory, as her children saw it?
Even back then, I knew that a funeral isn’t the time for intensive proclamation of the gospel, especially to a Jewish family struggling to cope with premature and tragic loss. Today I’d add that it also isn’t the time to provide false and flowery hopes about eternity that have nothing to do with the words of Scripture. The promise of life in the hereafter isn’t guaranteed to people just because we have good feelings about them, nor is it about loved ones living on after death through our memories or the good deeds we might do under their influence. My Aunt Mona was a fine and decent woman, wife, and mother, and it was enough to commit her into the hands of a merciful God. The iconic prayer of bereavement, the Mourners’ Kaddish, leads us in our time of loss to simply acknowledge God as the source of life, God as the Sovereign who knows what he’s doing even when we can’t figure it out, God who in the end brings peace from on high upon us and all Israel.
So, you ask, what did I do? I did a simple, traditional service and mentioned briefly Herbie’s faith in the Messiah and his assurance that Mona was OK with him. I don’t remember exactly what I said, and I don’t think it was that memorable. The word “Messiah,” though, did raise some eyebrows, including Uncle Ben’s, who had made a rare journey to the West Coast for the tragic occasion, but the eyebrows seemed more surprised than indignant. Later Herbie’s step-mother let me know that she was surprised, but in a positive way. by the whole funeral—“I thought it was going to be a goyishe thing and it wasn’t.”
Mona and Herbie’s son Errol became a believer not too long after his mother’s death, although I don’t know whether it was connected. Uncle Herbie, who was the picture of fitness and youth, never got over losing Mona and died suddenly a few years later in his early 60s. After he died I asked Errol about Mona’s funeral, saying that I guessed Herbie had been disappointed in the way I handled it, and Errol gently admitted that he was. I’m not sure what I’d do differently today.