Heartfelt eulogies help the living cope with their loss


Leviticus 9:1-11:47

II Samuel 6:1-7:17

I Samuel 20:18, 42

It was bound to happen. Technology has finally caught up with the funeral business. The centuries-old customs of memorializing a deceased family member with simple personal remarks and marking a grave with a tombstone is being transformed by Forever Enterprises, an interactive computer firm that provides "viewlogies," digital biographies available at cemetery computer terminals.

They provide mourners with up to 250 pages of photographs, videos, voices, testimonials and biographical materials of the dead; stay-at-home mourners can also be accommodated with Internet access to these digital biographies.

Contrast the amount of information that can be crammed into an electronic memorial with the Torah's terse comments about Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, whose untimely, tragic deaths are featured in Shemini.

All the reader is told is that God sent a heavenly flame to destroy Aaron's two sons almost immediately after their elevation to the priesthood, because "they offered alien fire" (Lev. 10:1) or, "they drew too close to the presence of God" (Lev. 16:1). Neither explanation provides very much information about the two men nor offers comfort to their family.

These sparse details highlight the tension between how much and what kind of information should be provided when someone dies. A skilled eulogist creates a succinct narrative out of a string of carefully chosen words, one that provides a glimpse into the inner recesses of a person's mind and heart. It should highlight what a person lived for, how his life, at its best, made a difference, how his faults and failings could be viewed with understanding and generosity. A well-constructed, thoughtful eulogy provides a gift to survivors because the examples can continue to inspire and instruct.

Two stories are illustrative:

A friend once eulogized a woman he had worked with for many years in these touching words: "She had more than five senses: More than sight, she had insight; more than hearing, she listened; more than taste, she had judgment; more than touch, she had feeling; more than smell, she had sensitivity."

A comparable example is the report of the gifts Rabbi Elimelech gave his disciples just before his death: To the Seer of Lublin, he gave the light of his eyes; to the Maggid of Koshnitz, he gave his heart; to Rabbi Mendel of Prustik, he gave his mind; and to the Rabbi of Apt, he gave the power of his tongue.

Both these succinct but thoughtful comments are more instructive than a hundred pages of accomplishments and achievements. Concise, well-chosen words like these capture a person's life better than an endless enumeration of activities. Thoughtful comments are most useful to survivors because, while a eulogy is a tribute to a person who has died, more importantly, it is a message to those who remain alive.

The account of the death of Nadab and Abihu recounts Aaron's stunning reaction to the death of his children: "Vayidom Ahron[italics], Aaron was silent" (Leviticus 10:3).

Perhaps Aaron did not know what to say about his sons that could provide comfort. Indeed, a rabbi, occasionally, is at an equal loss for what to say at a funeral. If a person was not charitable, he cannot be described as parsimonious; if he was not a kind person, he should not be called cruel or callous; if he was a workaholic, it cannot be said that his spouse and children came last; if his death was tragic, recounting the details serves no purpose.

Because the Torah provides no eulogy for Nadab and Abihu, centuries of commentators enumerated a variety of sins to justify the rectitude of their untimely deaths. More helpful than their self-righteous pronouncements might have been an elegy of comfort, words to help mourners reflect on their loss as well as on the accomplishments and lives of Nadab and Abihu, no matter what their failings or frailties might have been. The biblical author might have written:

We mourn the loss of two young men mysteriously struck down in the prime of their lives, men radiant with the fire of ambition, zealous in their devotion to the priesthood, passionate in their service to God. Fraternity and selfless fidelity to divine purpose united them in life and now, they will forever be united in death.

Unexplainable evil has torn joy from their parents, Aaron and Elisheva, who have been plunged into despair. They are not alone. The sages have long wondered why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Those who love them offer an affectionate embrace to keep Aaron and Elisheva from being embittered and to renew their faith and the knowledge that all that is good and lovely does not perish without a trace. There can be no life without pain, but where there is pain there is love and healing and hope, and it is in that hope that Nadab and Abihu will continue to be recalled with love in all the generations to come.

No matter how good or how bad a life has been, everyone's disappointments and triumphs deserve recognition. Either an age-old format or a modern technological version of a eulogy may equally recall the value of a person's life.