Three weeks ago I attended a funeral.
I’ve attended many funerals during my fifteen years in Atlanta—some might call this an occupational hazard—and learned what to expect. So I was surprised, and a bit unnerved, by how disoriented I was during this funeral.
It was an impossibly beautiful morning for July in Atlanta, with relatively low humidity and a cool breeze. The sun was shining as we arrived at the cemetery, a mixed multitude of the Jewish community, a reflection of the many people whose lives were touched by the deceased and his family. People greeted one another warmly, with hugs and exclamations of “you’re here,” in much the same way the deceased would have greeted us in his home. This, along with the barometric pressure, contributed to an almost pleasant atmosphere in the cemetery.
When the funeral director determined that everyone had arrived, he ushered us toward the small tent in front of the grave, where the family and close friends would sit shielded from the sun. The crowd assembled behind the tent and stood in rows, some with shoulders touching, others holding each other, all of us steadying each other.
I heard a woman near me say to her companion, “Look at all the widows.” I turned to my friend beside me, but she didn’t appear to have heard. I resisted the urge to look behind us and instead directed my attention to the rabbi, who was saying to the mourners, “God has given and God has taken away; may God’s name be blessed.”
I tried to concentrate as each of the grandchildren delivered a loving tribute and told their grandfather how much they missed him, as the rabbi brought the deceased’s life into focus with a well-delivered eulogy. But my thoughts inevitably wandered back to the women standing in the row before me, to my friend standing beside me, to the clusters of women gathered to support a friend who now bore the moniker of widow.
I wondered how many of us would come to be called widows. Some of us, due to the natural life expectancy of women, would belong to this demographic group in our later years. Others would be widowed at a younger age due to accident or illness, those unexpected and unnatural life circumstances.
I cried a lot on this beautiful day.
I was startled when my friend tapped my arm to offer me another tissue. I was only half-listening to the psalms and prayers, familiar rituals of funerals. The other half of me had momentarily left the cemetery to attend an imagined funeral taking place some time in the future. I was grateful for her interruption of these wandering thoughts. I looked straight ahead and recited the words of the mourner’s kaddish, together with the community that had assembled to honor a good man and to comfort his widow and family in their grief. I noticed a group of women, who have been friends for decades and have been together for countless celebrations; I realized that those who were still married stood protectively beside those who had lost their life partners.
It is likely that I will be present at many funerals in the next fifteen years. It is also likely that, as I get older, there will be many more women than men in attendance at these funerals. We will gather to support each other, as we assume the inevitable change of marital status from wife to widow. I did not happen upon this knowledge suddenly, but seeing these women reminded me of the great responsibility that comes with true friendship. At weddings, we promise to love our spouses until death. At funerals, we promise to love our friends as they confront death.
I felt strangely uplifted as I witnessed the enduring friendship of the women all around me. Three weeks later, I can still recall my odd feelings of euphoria as I drove home from the cemetery. Three weeks later, I am still awestruck by the power of love, radiating like the sun on that beautiful morning.
For love is stronger than death.