CJL: Living with, and talking about, the dead

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A funeral is one of the most difficult tasks a rabbi performs. It can also be one of the most meaningful, whether from learning unexpected details of a person’s life or bringing comfort to their loved ones. Note, not closure, but comfort, because there is no closure. In fact, learning how to live with loss and death can greatly enrich a life as Delphine Horvilleur, a Liberal French rabbi, shows in her beautiful and moving work, “Living with Our Dead: On Loss and Consolation” (Europa Editors). 

Horvilleur, who studied to be a physician before becoming a rabbi, notes that the ill and dying are often hidden in contemporary times. That makes it more difficult for people to accept death when it comes because we often hope for medical miracles. Even Horvilleur tried to keep death from her home by never returning directly there after a funeral. That changed with the pandemic, which she notes brought death directly to her door. 

When pondering the many different roles a rabbi plays, Horvilleur discovered an unexpected one: storyteller. The ability to tell a story plays an extremely important role during funerals: “Knowing how to narrate what has been said a thousand times before, while giving the person who hears the story for the first time unique keys with which to unlock the meaning for themselves – that is my function. I stand by the side of women and men who, at turning points in their lives, need stories. These ancestral stories are not only Jewish, but I speak them in the language of this tradition. They create bridges between eras and generations, between those who were and those who will be. These sacred stories open a path between the living and the dead. The role of a storyteller is to stand by the gate to ensure that it stays open.” These stories breach the wall between life and death, helping mourners to carry their loved one with them, even as the years pass. 

In the different chapters of “Living with Our Dead,” Horvilleur offers stories about funerals she’s performed, showing how each are the same, yet different, due to the uniqueness of the individuals who have passed away. She notes that doing a eulogy can be difficult because she is often just repeating what the mourners have told her. Understanding that her role is to transform their words, she writes that what she is doing is “accompany[ing] the grieving, not to teach them something they don’t yet know but to translate what they have told me so that they in turn can actually hear it. In that way, the narrative that left their lips returns to their ears by the intermediary of a voice that isn’t theirs, or at least not altogether theirs. It’s a voice that creates a dialogue between their words and an ancestral tradition, transmitted from generation to generation, to both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Jews, and especially to those who are doing their best.”

Horvilleur notes the importance of saying the Shema when someone is dying. She sees that declaration as a way of proclaiming that no matter what divides us, there is always a chance of unity –that a part of those who have passed away remains alive with their loved ones. She writes this in context of one of the most difficult funerals a rabbi can do: that of a beloved friend. By being both a friend and rabbi, Horvilleur sought to offer her friend what was needed, although, in the end, she, too, mourned a painful loss.

Horvilleur shows one woman’s ability to live with death when she writes about Miriam, whom she met when she was an apprentice rabbi in New York City. The author was surprised when this vibrant older woman told her that she was once so depressed, she spent all her time and energy planning her own funeral. The event that changed her life occurred after Miriam’s daughter told her they were going shopping. However, rather than being taken to a store, Miriam’s driver dropped her off at the Riverside Memorial Chapel. There they held her funeral: family, friends, neighbors and storekeepers she knew all gathered to discuss her life. The gathering was not morbid; rather, the people told stories about their connections to Miriam and laughed, enjoying the chance to celebrate her. It gave them the opportunity to show their love, something that changed Miriam’s life. No longer did she plan her funeral; instead, she now tried to live her life to the fullest. 

Horvilleur also writes of her time in Israel more 25 years ago – listening to Yitzhak Rabin speak hours before his death – and how that experience ties to her ideas of Zionism. She uses biblical stories to inform her visit to a relative’s grave in the French countryside, walking through a cemetery she had never expected to visit. In each case, her understanding of the Bible and Jewish tradition underlies her writing. For example, when discussing the story of Cain and Abel, and King Solomon’s “Ecclesiastes,” she writes that, “Everything that we build solidly ends up wearing out, disappearing, while that which is fragile, ephemeral, fallible, paradoxically leaves indelible traces in the world. The mists of past lives don’t evaporate: they permeate us and lead us where we never thought we would go.”

“Living with Our Dead” is only 151 pages, but that number belies its wisdom and depth. Horvilleur’s work speaks to everyone, not just rabbis. Her writing is clear and, although her point of view is that of a rabbi, she also fulfils her aim as a storyteller, offering her readers a new way to view the world of death and dying. “Living with Our Dead” comes highly recommended for those who have mourned and those fortunate enough to not yet be touched by death.