A “good sendoff” was the expression my mother, of blessed memory, used for a certain kind of funeral and shiva. It applied only to someone who lived a long and full life, someone whose loss was deep and significant, but not tragic. Grief was softened with gratitude, and people—lots of people—would gather to honor a life well lived.
The rabbi would deliver a eulogy capturing the person’s essence and legacy. Children and grandchildren would add their own precious memories. There would be sorrow and tears, but also traces of laughter through tears. At the gut-wrenching moment of lowering the coffin into the grave, mourners would be enveloped by loved ones. Many voices would join in that first recitation of Kaddish.
Afterwards, the meal of consolation. The unseen cadre of ladies who always make these things happen would have sprung into action. Bagels and cream cheese, hard-cooked eggs and tuna, kugel, sweets, and lots of hot coffee would be ready when the family returned from the cemetery.
Shiva would begin, a steady stream of family, friends, and acquaintances coming to enfold the mourners in comfort.
Over the years I came to love the same definition of a good sendoff: publicly honoring the long, full life of the deceased, while comforting mourners in the warm embrace of extended family, friends, and community. Although my mother died at least a decade short of ‘long life’, that’s the kind of sendoff she got. Same for my in-laws.
What does a ‘good sendoff’ look like now, in the midst of the corona pandemic?
We are all about to find out.
There will be beloved elders who pass away during the pandemic shutdown. Perhaps some from corona, but many more whose lives simply came to their natural end during this insane time.
Some will be well known in their communities, others less familiar. But every person who lives to old age leaves a remarkable story waiting to be told. That’s the story we share and honor at a funeral and shiva.
In the midst of the corona pandemic funerals are limited to a graveside service, attended by immediate family only. There will be no shiva in the usual sense.
Online technology enables us to share those stories and memories. Sort of. It’s cold comfort.
There is no online equivalent for holding a hand. There is no technology that equals simply showing up, arms open.
There is no ‘good sendoff’ in this moment. There is only the possible sendoff: a farewell that minimizes the spread of disease. The sort of sendoff that was unimaginable two weeks ago.
Or, as Kohelet wrote a very long time ago, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven….a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.”
Now we are in the time to refrain from embracing.
May God, whose ‘touch’ transcends quarantine, comfort all among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.