Who Is the Funeral for: The Dead or The Living?

By Johanna Karasik


My grandma had been sick for quite awhile, suffering from dementia and Parkinson’s disease. To be honest, I don’t remember when the illnesses started but I realized at some point that my Catholic grandma may not have ever realized the religious path that I was navigating, or that she even had a Jewish granddaughter.

Growing up, I had always noticed the devotion that my grandmother showed to her faith. As children, the weekends my brother and I would sometimes spend at our grandparents’ house gave me glimpses into her religion. Friday night dinners were always cheese pizza or homemade macaroni and cheese (with crushed potato chips on top), as it is customary in Catholic homes not to eat meat on Fridays. On Sunday mornings, my grandmother would attend church, leaving my brother and me with our grandfather and our favorite Jeopardy computer game.

My grandmother raised my mother and her six siblings in a Catholic family, with nearly all attending Catholic grade school. While I’m not sure where most of my aunts and uncles currently fall on the spectrum of religion or spirituality, I’m fairly certain that none of them identify with Catholicism. For as long as I can remember, all of the holiday gatherings have centered on family rather than religious worship. At Christmas we have port wine toasts, musical numbers, slide shows, and (seemingly) spontaneous monologues (featuring chime-ins from various relatives to be left unnamed). Easters are simply spring bagel brunches with chocolate candies and Pez. For over two decades, I had never been to church services with this side of my family and–with the exception of sporadic stories involving nuns and rulers–I had never really experienced religion of any sort with them.

That is, until my grandmother’s funeral.

Although none of her survivors were Catholic, we honored and mourned my grandmother with a Catholic funeral–at a cathedral, led by a priest. I had had a couple of previous cathedral experiences, but witnessing this service in the company of my family was completely foreign to me.

One particularly memorable point was when the Lord’s Prayer was recited (“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”). While I didn’t (and still don’t) know this prayer well enough to recite it, I’m pretty sure that I was introduced to it by movies and television shows. Previously, it meant nothing to me. And then, all of a sudden, there were all seven of my grandmother’s children, standing and saying the prayer in unison, as if this were the most natural thing to do. I had never seen any of them in a religious context and yet, here they were. And it made sense.

Services like these make you ponder if funerals are for the living or for the deceased. I was not at all involved in the planning of my grandmother’s services but I assume that the priest and cathedral were involved because they were important to my grandmother. While she never pushed it on her grandchildren or others around her as far as I could tell, her faith was important to her. That much was always obvious.

Although I am a non-Catholic, I don’t remember feeling like I couldn’t identify with the funeral services. In fact, I found hearing the eulogies and witnessing my grandmother’s religion quite meaningful. However, something very interesting occurred at the burial site. I don’t remember what specifically was being said, who was speaking or what exactly was going on, but–all of a sudden–Mourner’s Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer, began running through my head. At the time, I didn’t know the formula verbatim but the words and tune were there. I was probably the only Jew in attendance, but somehow it felt like there was a Jewish community inside me.

Last fall, one of my high school classmates took his own life. We had been editors together on the school newspaper. Although I didn’t know him well, I had always thought of him as an all-around great guy, a kind person, a good kid. In the years since I graduated high school, I thought of him from time to time, and wondered where he was, how he was doing. The news of his death affected me more than I would have expected. After all, we weren’t close friends, and I hadn’t spoken to him in almost seven years. In one day, I went through shock, denial, grief, and remembrance. I tried to remember as much as I could about him but, like much of high school, I don’t remember much. I thought about his family, whom I’m not sure that I’ve ever met. I found his name running through my mind, soon realizing that he could have been Jewish… and then wondering if that made any difference at all at that point. This naturally led me to think about the “Jewish view” on suicide and death, and to want more clarification on the religious view.

The Jewish concept that seems to prevail in readings about deaths and funerals is kavod hamet, preserving the dignity and honor of the deceased. To honor someone is to acknowledge, remember and respect. While we each may need our own unique venues and connect to different facets of faith, honoring an individual is really seeing that person–and respecting where he or she is coming from, what he or she believes. We may not believe it ourselves, but that element of understanding can extend our relationship and heal our own pain. In our interfaith world, where we all come from different places physically and spiritually, one of the key methods of honoring is to acknowledge, remember, and respect each other’s beliefs.

I may not have felt completely at home at the cathedral that day, but my grandmother probably did and I think that’s all that really matters.

In Loving Memory of Lynn Karasik.


About Johanna Karasik

Johanna Karasik is the program director of BCI (Brandeis Collegiate Institute) in Calif. Previously, she spent four years working for Hillel in engagement and programming. Johanna received a bachelor's in psychology from Colo. State University, and has written articles for Interfaithfamily.com and Shebrew.com. She welcomes emails at johnannakarasik@gmail.com.