BY RICHARD WHITE
Years ago, I remember a children’s story about a boy from a small village in the backwoods of the USA. He had a black lamb, his loved possession and companion. It was a story I once heard on the wireless and would hang out until I heard it again.
The lamb was lost and his mother or grandmother, sternly, not unkindly, in a distinctive Southern accent, told him: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Praised be the name of the Lord.”
There is a bracing truth about these words. They did not console the small boy. They may not console many of us today. But, there was something in her words and her tone that was kind, if not consoling.
Maybe it was the sense of gratitude and detachment. Maybe it was the respect for the Lord and a faith that had endured, loss and poverty, Job-like and remained steadfast, stoic, if not joyful.
Those words still work for me, in some way. Words can do that, grounded in faith and truth, long after the shell has worn thin and frail.
I work as a funeral celebrant. People with no religious belief or little engage my services. Recently, some people asked me to be celebrant for a service for a Jewish woman, a Holocaust survivor. Neither the woman nor the men organising her funeral were religious. But, she described the old woman as “fiercely Jewish”.
Despite her lack of traditional religion, the younger of the two men had heard her in the last months of her life muttering words of the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. He could not read Hebrew, but he found a transliterated version of the prayer, and he had resolved to recite the it at the end of the service.
I am not unfamiliar with Hebrew. I did not pretend to understand all of what was said, but I could pick up the odd word and the young man made a good fist of the rich pronunciation and rhythm. When he finished, there was a silence and respect, for the woman and for the unacknowledged, forgotten, still powerful words of the prayer.
On Monday night, I watched Frank Lowy on ABC1’s Summer series Family Confidential, speaking about his father and the discovery of how his father had died. He was beaten to death besides a cattle car outside the gates of Auschwitz. He had disobeyed orders and gone back for a precious bundle of belongings, his prayer shawl and tefillin.
Frank had arranged a reconstruction of one of those cattle cars. There was a memorial held to commemorate his father when the cattle car was returned to the rails outside the camp. It was a wet, cold day. There was some singing and I presume it was the Kaddish. The man who had witnessed death of Frank’s father was eloquent in his grief. Those same words had power, still.
Then, there was another funeral where I was the celebrant. There was no acknowledged religion in the family. The father who had died was a former policemen, much respected by his family and friends. The chapel at the crematorium was packed, people down the aisles, around the back and at the doors.
In the discussions about the funeral, the man’s son had asked for the Ave Maria after the eulogies. I expressed mild surprise at his choice, given strong instructions about nothing religious in the service. His comment was, “well, I like it and they play it at weddings.”
A colleague of the father, an older man, and his son gave simple, heartfelt tributes. Then, we played Ave Maria. There was, again, a stillness in that room. I don’t know whether it was the music, the effect of the two eulogies or whatever. But, I have had this experience with a reciting of other traditional prayers in non traditional settings, the Hail Mary, the Our Father and Psalm 23.
All I know is that in sacred moments in human life, bereft of a religious context, the traditional prayers, the well-worn, half-forgotten words work, still.
Richard White is bereavement counsellor at W.N. Bull Funeral Directors in Sydney.
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