I heard two women eulogized last week. One was a 39-year-old mother of three who succumbed to the illness she had been battling. The other was a 66-year-old grandmother of 14, married for 47 years to her childhood sweetheart. She was killed very suddenly in a car accident when their car inexplicably stalled on a busy freeway. It goes without saying that both were upsetting, both were sobering experiences, both were wake-up calls right before Rosh Hashanah, and both exemplified King Solomon’s teaching that “It’s better to go to a house of mourning than a house of rejoicing.”
But beyond the actual tragedy of their deaths and the re-emphasis on the need to use every minute productively, I learning something very important about their lives and took away some deep personal lessons.
All too often people delivering eulogies make one of two mistakes. Either they idolize the recently passed away person to the point where the praises seem at worst dishonest and at best insincere and meaningless. My husband was once at a funeral where such a eulogy was given. Afterwards, the man’s son approached my husband. “My father wasn’t like that at all,” he said. “He was actually a terrible human being, cruel and nasty.” (There’s a reason that it’s considered impermissible to overly praise someone in public; it provokes a desire to criticize, to set the record straight).
The other mistake is to be, perhaps, a bit too honest and open, to focus on the wrong qualities. We attended a funeral where our friend’s mother was lauded as a woman who “really enjoyed her cards and her alcohol.”
The eulogies last week were not like this. Both seemed to capture the essence of the person, whether it was their kindness, their selflessness, their focus on family, their ready smile, the fact that they never said a bad word about anyone… From my acquaintance with these two special women, these words of praise rang true.
And I couldn’t help thinking the obvious (clichéd though it may be). “What will people say about me?” Lest the answer is “look how self-centered she was; even someone else’s funeral was about her!” – let me clarify. I wasn’t wondering what the exact words of the eulogy would be (please God after 120 years) but rather I was reflecting on my life. Who am I? What footprint have I left on this world so far? On the people I love? What would I ideally like them to say and how do I make myself into a person they can say those things about? What would I not like them to say and how do I prevent that?
I hope it’s not too late. Life can change in an instant. But I do want to focus my life in such a way that it reflects my positive goals, that I will be the person I’d like to be (or at least close) – not for the sake of eulogy, but because the eulogy will be a description of who I’ve become and how I’ve lived.
There are no words to adequately describe these two tragedies – or how they have shaken our community. We can’t even imagine how their husbands will cope. I can still hear the plaintive cries of one of the widowers, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?”
But I hope that, at the very least, we will all – as a community and as individuals – have grown from this sad and painful experience. I hope that we will all have used the opportunity to introspect, to re-evaluate and to change. And I hope that, through this growth, we will all in our own small ways imbue these deaths with additional meaning and provide some small consolation to the bereft mourners.