I Can Do That… Can I?

It doesn’t happen all that often, but occasionally I do go to funerals where I’m not officiating. As a professional, I “enjoy,” if I can use that word in this context, the opportunity to see how colleagues do what I am so often called upon to do.

Just a few days ago, I attended the funeral of a close friend, and it was one of those instances when I got to sit with friends and pay my respects as a private citizen. At this particular funeral, the primary eulogy was delivered not by any professional clergy, but rather by the man’s son. An Assistant District Attorney, he obviously had a great deal of experience speaking in public, and I can say without any reservation at all that it was one of the finest eulogies I had ever heard, including those delivered by seasoned clergy.

More and more these days, family members and friends are speaking at the funeral services of their loved ones, to the degree that it has become pretty much the norm. When I first began the practice of my rabbinate almost thirty years ago, it was relatively rare. That’s not the case today. There are still instances when I’m the only speaker at a funeral, but it’s become the exception as opposed to the rule.

The eulogy I heard earlier this week was the clearest proof that, when it’s done by a capable writer and speaker, the people who knew the person who died the best are most certainly the right ones to eulogize him/her. But I also am obliged to admit that I’ve sat through some eulogies by family members that made me cringe. In some rare but memorable instances, sons or siblings have used their eulogies to “work through” issues that have no place being worked out in public. And since I can’t ask people to vet their eulogies with me before they deliver them, either for content or length, I always run the risk of wishing- too late- that I had.

We Jews are not alone in this trend. It’s become very much the norm in Catholic funeral masses as well, and the Church is none too happy about it. The funeral mass is a sacrament that priests alone can administer, and there is a question as to whether or not lay participation is even allowed, much less a good thing. We have no such problem in Judaism. Nothing that I or any rabbi does is a “sacrament.” Any layperson with the appropriate knowledge may do what a rabbi can do- teach a class, deliver a sermon, even officiate at a marriage (although the state would not recognize the marriage as binding). It’s not a question of intruding on a rabbi’s space. The goal at a funeral is to honor the person who died. In theory, the people who knew him/her best are uniquely positioned to do that.

The only question that I ever have goes to the unanticipated difficulty of standing in front of the casket of your loved one and keeping yourself in good enough shape to actually say what you would want to say in a way that people can hear you. My friend’s son did it like he’d been doing it his whole life, and I was appropriately humbled by his skill. There’s so much talent in the laity that rabbis would do well to embrace!

But it’s harder than it looks.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.