At any time. And most often when you least expect it.
When I was a teenager, my dad had shared with me that my grandfather – my dad’s father-in-law – had pestered he and my mom to buy cemetery plots with my grandparents, right next to each other at their synagogue’s cemetery on the Jersey Shore. In the 1970s, $200 per plot seemed like a lot of money to my dad. I am not sure if he went ahead and purchased the plots as a favor to my grandfather, or that he was just planning ahead.
It is good I remembered that conversation when my dad passed away a dozen years ago.
And it is also good that I was a part of a synagogue community. One call to my rabbi set into motion a funeral service, connection to a funeral home, Shiva (more cake than you could ever imagine), and community support.
Two years ago, our synagogue had a campaign to sell plots in its cemetery. The $750 price was about to double. And, remembering that conversation with my dad, it seemed like a good step in terms of end of life plans and one less thing for us, or our children, to think about down the road.
Recently, a tragic death of a young man in our community caused me to think about all of this again. His parents had been members of our congregation. And as with many people, as soon as their last child completed their B’nai Mitzvah, synagogue membership was no longer a priority.
A friend of the family – also a former congregant – called our rabbi to see if the funeral could be at the synagogue and if the rabbi and cantor could perform the funeral.
No one ever expects to outlive their children. Taking care of arrangements is hard enough to do when an elderly parent passes away. When you don’t belong to a synagogue and you experience the death of a loved one, you can call a funeral home for help and guidance. Knowledge of the loved one and the family will most likely be minimal.
Our synagogue was the site of this family’s funeral for their son. And the clergy performed the service. One view is this was the right thing to do for a family in need. This would be one important message to share with congregants.
An opposing view has to do with what are the benefits of synagogue membership. The grieving family chose to no longer be temple members. Does helping a family in need set a precedent for others still living in the community but who made this same conscious choice to no longer affiliate?
Then there are the practical, “bean counter” issues. The custodial staff had to set up the sanctuary and social hall for the several hundred people who attended, and then broke it down and cleaned it up later that day. What about the clergy’s time to prepare and conduct the service, to console the family?
What happens next week when calls and asks the rabbi to help him burry his mom or dad?
Clergy might do a baby naming or a bris “on spec”, that such engagement with a young family might lead to membership. Is that right? But what do you do when former congregants call and ask the rabbi or cantor to perform a wedding? Or a funeral?
There are no easy answers here.