Last week, my husband and I attended a funeral service for my neighbor’s son, Steve, who died at the young age of 49 from an inoperable brain tumor. Family and friends were stunned by the news as he was diagnosed just six weeks prior and died after just one round of chemotherapy. Death is hard at any age but Steve’s death was particularly hard for us to swallow because the chemo, his only hope, had actually ended his life.
My friends and neighbors are of the Jewish faith and I had never been to a Jewish funeral before so I had no idea what to expect. There were several people in attendance and the rabbi asked us to move up closer to the casket as they began lowering it into the ground. I must admit this was a bit uncomfortable for me because I’ve never seen a coffin lowered into the ground or placed into a mausoleum wall. As a Roman Catholic, I am used to walking away from a casket adorned with flowers, and leaving it up to the caretakers to do the rest.
After Steve’s body was lowered, the Mourner’s Kaddish was recited in both Hebrew and English. The prayer has nothing to do with death but is meant to reaffirm one’s faith in God during the difficult time of mourning. What followed was one of the most moving sermons that I have ever heard. The rabbi acknowledged those of us of different faiths gathered to pay our respects to Steve and said, “Usually, I give family and friends the opportunity to say a few words. But there are so many people here that we would be here until dusk. What an expression of love!”
Yarmulkes, also known as keepahs, were passed around and men of various faiths placed one on their head in respect for Steve and his family. These skullcaps are traditionally worn by Jewish men as a sign of religious piety and are one of the most recognizable symbols of Jewish identity.
The rabbi went on to explain that what matters most is how we live our life and the good that we do while we are here on earth. When we die, he said, “The rest is up to God,” then he read the popular poem, The Dash, by Linda Ellis:
I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend
He referred to the dates on his tombstone
From the beginning to the end
He noted that first came the date of his birth
And spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered the most of all
Was the dash between those years
For the dash represents all the time
That he spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved him
Know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not how much we own;
The cars, the house, the cash,
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.
If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.
And be less quick to anger,
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect,
And more often wear a smile
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a while.
So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?
This poem is one of my favorites and each time I hear it I am overcome with emotion. Standing there huddled with the rest of the mourners; tears fell down my face eventually reaching the earth below. Why is it that it often takes death to remind most of us of just how precious life really is? Why is it that it often takes a loss for some of us to realize just how much we loved someone? Why is it that we suddenly realize all the words that should have been spoken and the things that should have been done when our loved one is no longer with us?
As the brief service ended, the rabbi offered powerful words of comfort as he assured us that Steve will live on in all of us. As he spoke, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of oneness and unity. We stood there not as Catholics vs. Jews but as an expression of love. What people sometimes fail to realize is that regardless of our faith, we are all worshipping the same God. There is, I believe, one God; One Supreme Being. When we pray, the same God is listening.
I write this blog, however, not as a means to sway one’s beliefs in one way or another. If you believe in a God, then fine. If you don’t, that’s fine, too. The truth is the truth regardless of one’s beliefs. And as Linda Ellis so beautifully writes in her poem, what matters most is how we lived and loved. In the end, this dash is what will define us, not our religion.
What will be said about your dash? Live and love. Make your dash worth hearing.
This blog is written in memory of Steve Nauhauser. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.