As awful and difficult as they can be, funerals provide an opportunity to reflect, take a look at your own life and reassess the path you are taking. I went to a funeral yesterday for a wonderful woman I met during my recovery. She took me with her to speak to a group of women at the local detention facility. She had been going faithfully to meet with women in jail for over twenty years. That was just one group she reached out to help.
On the evening we rode to the jail together, she shared with me some of her amazing story. She had lived a fascinating life as a journalist and traveled all over the world. She worked for various organizations and associations that helped women around the globe. I could have listened to her stories for hours, and hoped to have more opportunities to do so. But I won’t. I told her she should really write a book. But she won’t.
Her husband spoke at the funeral and gave a detailed biography and list of selfless achievements. He said that the thing she was most proud of, of all these things, was her sobriety date. She considered it the day that God removed from her the compulsion to drink. September 21, 1981. Not a drink since then. He shared with the small group gathered to pay their respects that she did not want to just experience this wonderful, new, sober, improved life alone, but wanted to share it with others. So she reached out wherever she could and was a mentor and support to many people, mostly women, along her path through sobriety.
A young rabbi presided over the funeral and recounted a well-known and comforting story based on a quote from Ecclesiastes 7:1: “The day of death is better than the day of one’s birth.” He explained that when a person is born, people rejoice and when one dies, everyone cries. That, he told us, is backwards. He said that when a person is born, everyone should cry because there is no way of knowing whether he or she will follow the right path in their life. When a person dies, however, everyone should celebrate since they know that he or she left this world in peace after living a good life on the correct path, like my friend.
The rabbi went on to say that this story can be compared to two ships that were in the water full of cargo. One ship was coming in to port and the other was leaving. People were focused on and praising the ship comping into port, and not the one going out on it’s new adventure. Why? Because the incoming ship had departed in peace and arrived at its destination in peace. But no one knows what the future holds for the ship that is just beginning its journey. “So it is with a person who is born: we do not know the nature of his future deeds. But when he leaves this world, we know the nature of his deeds.” (Yalkut Shimoni Kohelet 7:1.)
The Beth El Synagogue Center website sums this up beautifully: “This tale knows that we cry when someone we love passes. At the same time, it asks that we focus on how the person lived, rather than on a death which comes to us all. It values the deeds the person engaged in, and views the totality of human life as a lesson from which we can learn; and it does so with a sense of humility. We cannot know with certainty what life holds in store for us, nor what awaits us after we die, even though Judaism believes in an afterlife of the soul. But we can choose to live with God and with righteousness regardless of what storms come our way.”
As sad as it was to lose someone wonderful, I was comforted by this service. It did indeed focus on how she lived a life on the right path and with great humility. Something to think about and hopefully learn from. On the way out of the funeral, another friend from recovery took hold of my arm to walk out together. She asked me if I thought that the other people there knew who we were—-the group of recovering, alcoholic women who sat together and came to pay respects to their friend. I told her that I was pretty sure they did, and that I was proud of that.
On September 21, I’ll have a pint of Ben and Jerry’s out, with 2 spoons, to toast my friend’s sobriety date and the wonderful woman that she was.
“On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfill the promise of our friend’s life also, in our own, to the world.” ― Henry David Thoreau