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A Greek Orthodox Funeral

 

A few weeks ago, I went to a funeral at a Greek Orthodox Church. The death was expected, though still sad. I’d kept in touch with one of my clients (from my senior center internship), visiting and calling her on a regular basis for the past two years. She had been actively dying for at least fifteen years (from cancer), and inspiring everyone with her persistence and her capacity to live fully within her limitations. But for the last year, things were slowly coming to an end and we talked our way through it together; coming to peace with her death, as much as that’s possible.

The funeral was open casket. Jewish funerals are, traditionally, closed casket, so this was not something I was really prepared for. Even from my seat six rows back, I could see her head clearly (they cranked up the bottom of the casket, with an actual crank, to make her visible during the funeral, and then cranked her back down at the end so they could close the lid). I think I was the only one in the room who didn’t go up to talk to her. They had dyed her hair, and put on makeup, so she looked sort of alive, but not really like herself.

The only people I knew at the funeral were from the senior center, and a few family members; everyone else was a picture I’d seen, or a story I’d been told (she was a great story teller). She told me, often, that I should write her life story for her, and I told her, just as often, that I wanted her to write it for herself. But she never did. I know there are rules about this in the social work code of ethics (avoiding dual relationships), but also just for me, writing her stories would have felt like stealing.

I didn’t start crying until the eulogies started. The director of the senior center talked about my former client as if she was right there in the room (she was!), and I used up all of my tissues within minutes, and had to reuse them, until I was basically wiping my face with snot (don’t judge me, I was desperate).

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The saving grace was the distraction of the Greek orthodox rituals. I could focus on my curiosity and hold the grief at bay, just a little bit. The sanctuary had a domed ceiling, and gold painted apostles on the walls, and hidden doors where the gofer (I’m sure there’s a more dignified title for him, but I don’t know it) would sneak in and hand one of the clergymen something they needed. One clergyman was dressed in all black and stood in front of three microphones. The other one wore dramatic white robes, with an overlaid floor length scarf, and had a microphone attached to his head so he could walk through the room and swing incense around the coffin and down the aisle.

They both kept talking about how my former client had “gone to sleep” (at least in the English, I can’t tell you what they said in Greek or Latin). And with the raised pillows, and the hair and makeup, you could almost believe she really was just sleeping. The fact is, she would have loved to have been there, just to hear what people were saying about her, and of course, to critique all of the performances.

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As they wheeled her (now closed) coffin out of the building, the crowd followed her out through two enormous steel doors into the fresh air. Everything about the setting was so dramatic and impressive. She would have loved that.

I knew she was ready to die, and that her body had been ready for even longer than her spirit, and I was relieved for her when the end came. But she took up such a big space in my heart – as one of my first clients as a social work intern, but also as a friend. And I miss her.

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It was a hard day. I sat with my former supervisor afterwards, both of us trying to absorb the loss and put it into some kind of safe, protected place where it wouldn’t leak out into the rest of our lives. But grief doesn’t really work that way. I remember everything: the times when my client was heartbroken, and enraged, and confused, and as lost as a child. The times when I couldn’t wait to see her, and couldn’t stop laughing, and the times when she cut me so deep I could barely breathe.

The idea that social workers can have a full caseload of clients and not be impacted by them, and not care about them, or miss them, or hate them, or love them – is crazy. We’re human. Yes, we have to choose how to behave, given those feelings, and follow our codes of ethics as far as we can, to make sure we are doing no harm, but the connections are real.

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My former supervisor goes to a lot of funerals. That’s what happens when you work with seniors as your life’s work (and maybe why I’m reluctant to follow her down that path, even though I really like the population). You meet people and make connections and do as much as you can to help them, and then, often, you watch as they slip away. Seniors are just as complicated and troubled as everyone else, but maybe more so because they are usually more aware of death, and sometimes that makes them angry, or depressed, or desperate to fit as much as possible into each day, and it can be hard to live up to their needs and expectations.

The funeral did what it was supposed to do: it let me grieve, and it let me say goodbye. But I feel sad that I never wrote my client’s stories down. Even in my progress notes, I didn’t quite capture her voice, and that feels like a loss. For me, for everyone who didn’t get to meet her, and for everyone who did. But I will always remember her, and that’s a good thing.

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

92 responses »

  1. People who tell you not to get attached to your clients/patients/etc just don’t get it. Absolutely the connections are real. I am sorry for the loss, but so happy she had you in her life, Rachel.

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  2. Here, right here you’ve told a beautiful story about your client. Clearly she was full of life.

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  3. Poignant story; thank you for sharing it. I understand the struggle to maintain professional distance. Some clients draw us in more than others. A “little old lady” client from 1985 touched me deeply, and I still tell her story on occasion. In that way we honor them, keeping them with us in our hearts, melding with our own stories because to us they are unforgettable.

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  4. This is very touching. So sorry for your loss.

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  5. I haven’t been to too many funerals. I don’t think I’ve ever been to one were the deceased’s casket was open. I don’t know if it’s a thing here in Australia or not.

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  6. Looks like your puppy above realized that you’re upset about something.

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  7. I agree with you about the open casket being strange. The only way it ever made sense to me was as a way for everyone else to see that indeed this person is no longer alive. It gives some people (I’m told) a kind of closure that closed casket cannot.
    In any case, I am sorry for your loss. A person with a heart as big as yours must feel this deeply. May you find comfort.

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  8. So sorry for your loss & bless your heart for doing what you do. My mom had an open casket as did my aunt & most of my relatives, including my grand-daughter who was only 34 days old. That is not foreign to me. We are Christians, so I suppose it is really about how you grow up. For our family, the reason a casket is closed is if there is a horrific accident leaving the body so maimed that it is not good to see. Praying you find comfort in the friendship that she took with her in the afterlife. BTW….dogs always know when you are sad. My dog, Heaven got me through my grand-daughters death almost 11 years ago. She still knows my moods. Let them love on you the way they know how. 🙂

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  9. That was beautifully told
    Thankyou x

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  10. To me, death is waking up, not falling asleep. Thinking of it that way is much happier to me. (I still grieve with lots of tissues and snot, though.)

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  11. You may find that as time passes, her stories will come back to you at unexpected times, in unexpected places. As writers, we are the sum total of all our life experiences and thoughts, Like matter and energy, it never goes away, it just changes form.

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    • By the way, I am from the South where open caskets used to be common, though now they are much less so. I have no explanation for it, and in fact never thought about it because it was the norm. I can say that I found I was much less frightened or put off by death than my friends from different traditions. Our family gathered by the casket, often seeing each other for the first time in years. We laughed and remembered; we put aside conflicts and felt united by our shared grief. We talked about how pleased the person would be to see us all together and each took our turn to say goodbye. It was not creepy or scary. It was just part of life.

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  12. If she left you and you were on great terms, you can only hope that someone misses you that much when you’re in the casket. We have no control over when, just how we treated others before the “when”.

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  13. Such a beautiful tribute to a remarkable woman. I’m glad you had the chance to say farewell and to share some of her story with us.

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  14. I feel for you and agree that an open casket is a concern. I have only ever been to one and although it was not elevated as the one at the Greek Funeral was, anyone who had to speak had to walk past the open casket. I understand the need for closure but it’s still- for me at any rate – unsettling. Very beautifully written, Rachel. Thank you for that.

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  15. Fascinating piece (and I too have had to wipe my face with snotty tissues in the past.)

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  16. You have brought her story alive to those of us who never net her, and I am sure she would be grateful for that. Open caskets are not usual in England, and I would find that very strange too.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  17. This is a beautiful story about the paradoxical nature of funerals. My sympathy goes out to the family and to you.

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  18. I have never been to such a funeral; protestant funerals are closed coffin and closed emotions I think! I can understand the Irish / Scottish Catholic tradition of the open coffin for lying in the front room of the person’s home, relatives coming to say goodbye and everyone knowing for sure they are dead. But make up, hair dyed and propped up does sound bizarre! My Scottish husband has never forgotten being taken out of school to go and see his grandfather ( and has hated funerals ever since! ) How can you not get involved with your clients. In a dozen years of Books on Wheels only visitng our housebound people every three weeks, we still think of them as friends and remember all the ones we inevitably lose.

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  19. What a lovely, honest, and well written testimonial. Thank you. Yes, our rituals benefit greatly and are important to navigating our lives.

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  20. This piece is terrific! I’m on the Board of our local hospice and wonder if I might share it with them? I’m 71 years old. My two closest friends died when I was 33 and they were 31 and 33 respectively. ( They died nine months apart). One was a pediatric surgical resident who was shot to death in a mugging. The other was a research Cardiologist who died on the cath table of end-stage Cardiomyopathy. That; coupled with a career in adult medicine makes me no stranger to death, yet something that is never easy to grapple with. After my friends died I became depressed and had trouble getting close to people. I thought if I let someone get close to me that they would die. Anyway…the scene about cranking the coffin up and down is tragically sublime. One of my friends was of Irish descent. He wanted to be waked at his home where I rented a room. Open the coffin lid in the morning and close it at night…for 3 days….not to mention the smell of formaldehyde mixed with a tinge of putrefaction wafting through the house. It was ridiculously pathetic. I think the Jewish tradition is better. Close them up and put them in the ground. And yes, the corpse does and yet doesn’t look like the person. Something intangible and elusive is missing …once the blood runs cold and the spirit departs.

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    • I’m so sorry for your losses. I can’t even imagine how a tragedy like that can change the course of a life. We impact each other so deeply and so constantly. And ofcourse you can share the essay-I’d be honored.

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  21. Loss and grief are always difficult. The blessing for us to have known them and possibly learned from them for however brief it was.

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  22. Eternal memory for your friend and virtual hugs for you.

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  23. If I ever need a social worker, I hope it’s someone as caring as you.
    When we have a gift with people, I believe we need to use it – I know you will find and use yours.

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  24. Rachel, thanks for caring. Of course, you feel for your clients when they suffer or reach the end. When allowed to do the job they were trained to do, social workers can move mountains or at least help manage the pain. Too often, they are overburdened with far too many clients and it stretches them thin. So, in these cases, social workers know they could do more if given the time. Bless you for what you do and have done. Keith

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  25. 😦 Sorry for your loss. We once went to a Greek Orthodox wedding. By the end, it felt like that couple was really, really married. The symbolism was that strong. It seems Orthodox funerals are the same — allowing people to really, really grieve. That’s a good thing, I suspect.

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  26. Grief is the price of loving, and I can tell you loved your friend well. I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing.

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  27. Sorry for your loss. I’m glad you were able to be a friend to your client. Hopefully you both find piece in her passing.

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  28. Please accept my condolences on your loss. ❤

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  29. Beautifully written, almost a eulogy in itself.

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  30. A lovely tribute to your friend. She sounds great, how could she simply remain a client.

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  31. I taught college students, and I still went to a few funerals for them. So age is no guarantee of no loss. I didn’t experience open caskets until we moved to Connecticut. First there is a separate event, the wake, where the body is laid out and you file past it to pray and then greet the family in a kind of receiving line. Sometimes I have had family members want to introduce me to the “departed.” Very odd. Then the funeral. It turns out that it is considered enough to go to the wake. Lots of new customs here, for sure.

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  32. Hello Rachel, I love your heart that shines in this piece of writing. Popped in to say hello and glad I did!

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  33. So sad. My grandmother passed a couple weeks ago from Cancer. She would have been 90 come Feburary. It brought back memories from her funeral and although it was not Jewish just still the same. As we do not celebrate death we should still celebrate the life and what one brings to our life.

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  34. Max was a certified therapy dog – and we visited the nursing home every Friday. I fell in love with one of the “inmates” – term that this lady found highly amusing. When Anna died, I grieved as much as I did when my own mother passed. People come into our lives and touch our hearts and we hurt when they leave. Like you, I wish I had written down her stories. I like to think she’s with Max – who loved his Anna – feeding him bacon and watermelon and waiting for me to come and sit with them again

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      • we spent every Friday with Anna. One semester I had a break between classes that was too short to drive home, so I would go have lunch with Anna, without Max. Oh, the stories she told me. She was 96, when she started to fail, she called for us – we dropped everything and went to her. My life was blessed by her presence. Your life was blessed by your friend as well, We miss them, but are so grateful we knew them. This reminds me of a post you made awhile ago – about finding blessings and being thankful? In the midst of tears, we remember that they loved us, and we loved them. And we are thankful for those memories.

      • That’s really beautiful! Thank you!

  35. So sorry to hear about the death of your friend/client. She was fortunate to have you in her life, and you were fortunate to have the privilege of knowing her.

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  36. Just started reading Yeshiva Girl.

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  37. I have always been grateful that I did a chaplain internship at a nursing home while I was in rabbi school. Those relationships with elderly clients are such a delicate balance! Many of them initially saw me as a granddaughter or niece, and I had to fight to remember that I was a professional, not a granddaughter or niece. The resident I became most attached to died, and I hurt as if a family member had died – but it was good practice for all the people whose funerals I would later officiate who had become dear to me.

    I grew up Irish Catholic, as I think I’ve mentioned before, and grew up with open casket wakes. I am grateful that Jewish tradition teaches us not to display the body of the dead person! My Jewish soul screeched, “ACK! Let me out of here!” every time I was invited to look at a dead relative and admire how “lifelike” they were.

    Loved your description of the Greek Orthodox church and the anastasis (that’s the screen with the doors in it) with the gofer, which my brain immediately changed to gopher. Their liturgy is beautiful; when I was trying to find my spiritual home, I checked out a similar Orthodox church in Memphis periodically. It wasn’t home but it was very beautiful.

    Thanks, Rachel, I love your stories.

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    • Thank you so much! I generally think of rabbis running services or teaching classes, because that’s where I see them most, but the rabbis at my synagogue talk about how often they are bouncing from funerals to weddings and back again. I can’t even imagine the emotional roller coaster of that.

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  38. Interesting. My mother was Greek Orthodox and although she didn’t have a Greek Orthodox funeral, her sister did, many years before her own funeral. At my aunt’s funeral, the coffin was open, as you described and at one point everybody approached the body to kiss it. It was very strange for me.
    I enjoyed reading your post. It brought back precious memories. ❤

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  39. Thank you for this post. I have had the reverse experience at a Jewish friend’s funeral. It was so meaningful and personal. The funerals I’ve gone to before this, all Catholic can not compare. Since I’m Irish, the only personal touches came at the wakes and it’s very true about Irish wakes!

    Thank you for your wonderful, well-written posts and thank you for not only following me but always among the first to like them!
    Pat

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  40. You may not have written her story as a catalogue of events, but your caring captured her spirit.

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