In light of Michael A. King's "Naming the shadows: Truth-telling at funerals" (Feb. 8), let me offer a Jewish perspective. In the Jewish tradition there are two kinds of persons- those animated with life and those no longer animated with life. All human beings, as creations of God, must be honored and treated with dignity and respect. The task of treating the lifeless human being with dignity and respect is made more difficult because that person cannot speak for himself or herself.
For this reason, according to Jewish law, one may not eat or drink in the presence of the lifeless; to do so is to mock the dead who cannot eat or drink. One may talk in the presence of the lifeless person only about matters that pertain to the honor and dignity of that person, namely, the funeral service and other arrangements- and surely words of prayer and lament.
One may not speak ill of the dead not because the lifeless person was perfect when alive (no one on all the earth is without sin), but because he or she cannot respond. The lifeless person cannot take criticism and learn from it, cannot respond and explain his or her behavior or present heretofore unknown facts that might refute the criticism or place it in a different perspective. Living humans have the obligation to stand for the honor and dignity of the lifeless one who is now mute.
It is not the purpose of a eulogy to provide an evaluation of someone's life as if it were an exit interview in the workplace or a support-group activity. It is not the purpose of a eulogy for human beings, who are themselves imperfect, to stand before others in the presence of the silent, defenseless, lifeless person and talk negatively about or render judgment upon that person. That is the task of God.
How do children provide the honor due a parent when that parent did some really horrible things? In the Jewish tradition, the family gathers in the sequestered setting of the home for seven days after burial so that together, possibly with the help of a few others, they can fashion a useful, though incomplete, understanding of the deceased. The funeral service as a public, religious event is intended to pay honor and dignity due to all persons created in the image of God. Its purpose is to draw a positive lesson or two from the deceased's life that others can use and to express and deepen our sense of the sanctity of life itself. To do anything else is presumptuous.
Rabbi Yehiel Poupko
Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
Christian Century, "Letters," March 22, 2011, p. 6
Pax et bonum