Image: Rabbi interviews mourners for the hesped. (LisaYoung/shutterstock)
Jewish traditions for speaking of the dead are ancient, going all the way back into the mists before historical time.
Sarah died in Kiriyat-Arba, now Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham began to lament (lispod) and weep (v’livkotah) for her.Genesis 23:2
The verb lispod (to lament) is a very specific word. It means “lament,” which is an ancient literary form. The most famous examples of this literature are the book of Lamentations and psalms such as Psalm 79.
It is sometimes translated “to eulogize” although a lament is not exactly a eulogy. Eulogy comes from Greek words meaning “beautiful” and “words.” A conventional eulogy is a speech of “beautiful words” about the dead person, avoiding saying anything bad about them. A lament is a literary form speaking from the kishkes (gut,) expressing grief and telling the truth about a situation. It ends in a statement of hope, sometimes rather a faint one, but always hope.
Strictly speaking, the words spoken about the dead at a Jewish funeral are not a eulogy; they are a hesped, from that same verb, “to lament.” I learned how to write a hesped from Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. He taught us that there were traditionally two things that must happen for a proper hesped: we must (1) tell the truth and (2) make people cry. He acknowledged that it could be difficult to do the first one when the person in question was not a mensch. Then he reminded us that no human being is without flaws.
The truth of this came home to me early in my rabbinate, when I had the task of conducting a funeral for a man I’ll call “Abe” who definitely had two sides. This came out when I interviewed the family as I prepared the hesped. According to one of his adult children he was a wonderful person. According to another adult child, he was extremely cruel. I had met him several times and had sensed a hint of this duality.
It was important to both children that I “tell the truth” about their dad, and it meant walking a very fine line. I wrote a hesped in which I acknowledged his many public good works, and said, “Anyone who knew Abe well, knew that he could be very determined that his way to do something was the only way, regardless of the consequences.” All of the adult children felt that I had presented him accurately. No one wanted a scandal; they just wanted to hear the truth so that they could mourn the person they remembered.
I think about that hesped every time a public figure dies. The media has a tendency to eulogize the dead, to refer only to the things that people admired about them. This is in keeping with the Western tradition of eulogy, which we inherit from Greek and Roman culture. We “don’t speak ill of the dead.”
A counter-narrative arises (these days, on Twitter) that insists that the dead person was BAD and that everyone saying the good things is missing the point. Both the hagiographists and the critics are mistaken: human lives always are a mix of good and bad deeds, and not all deeds are experienced in the same way by the people affected.
Jewish tradition guides me in talking about the dead. I acknowledge their humanity by noting both the good and the bad. Before burial, I detail the good – for the sake of the mourners – and acknowledge their flaws. Later on, there is plenty of time to be blunt, if there is reason to do so.
Talking about the dead honestly is a difficult task. That is why Jewish tradition encourages us to leave the formal eulogy, the hesped, to a rabbi,a professional who has been trained in its complexities and pitfalls.