Jewish Funerals


Jewish Funerals


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Professional Courtesy

By Neal Milner

The makeshift shelter made it easy to spot my mother-in-law's freshly dug grave. Workers had assembled a small canopy to protect the few mourners who huddled together in the cold and rain. The rabbi recited the Kaddish and offered shovels to the children and grandchildren so they could begin the final act of covering the casket that had now been lowered into the ground. Milwaukee winter funerals were not new to me. My grandfather had died there on an even colder January day more than thirty years before, and my father had also been buried on a gray, raw December morning like this one. But this time was different. I was the rabbi. Well not exactly the rabbi, a rabbi impersonator, a huckster, an imposter. I lied my way into the job. To understand why, you have to understand corporate America.


When my in-laws, Anne and Max Primakow, were growing up in Milwaukee, Jewish funerals were simple there. There were just two Jewish funeral homes, both family owned, Goodman and Bensman. Both started near one another before the Depression, and each was in the old Jewish neighborhood, within easy mourning distance. There was no problem following the traditional religious law that allows for no more than one day between death and burial because the body lay right there in the neighborhood, and the Hevra Kaddisha, the ritual body-washers, were close by friends or neighbors. Often these rituals were performed when it was still at home. The deceased's family knew the rabbi, who had probably walked from his house or shul to pay his respects and maybe to double-check some eulogy information about a person he already knew pretty well. There was little doubt about who would show up at the funeral, and no doubt at all about who should show up.

The trip to the cemetery took a little while longer because Jewish cemeteries were on the other side of town in the city's goyische neighborhoods where no Jew wanted to live but felt okay with being buried. Still, it was a quick cortege ride, maybe twenty minutes. Returning to their roots as the final resting place was definitely not an option. The old folks may have come from the Old Country and may still have had a little greenhorn in them, but, as bewildering as they sometimes found America to be, it was without any question their salvation, their home. So, like my in-laws' parents, they were settled into the ground an easy Sunday drive away. Forever.

Not really forever. The bodies didn't move, but everyone else did. The tightly knit Milwaukee Jewish neighborhood began to spread both east and west. Goodman merged with Bensman to become—and this was even before computer-generated branding—Goodman Bensman. Not exactly leveraged by junk bonds. Just two guys shouting, "It's a deal! Mazel Tov!" Still, these businessmen understood the principles of capital formation and the economies of scale. To get to the heart of the matter, they knew that a monopoly could make more money than an oligopoly.

This new partnership moved out of its two separate quarters and built a plain but dignified new funeral home on Milwaukee's West side. That's where my in-laws, like the majority of the city's Jews, settled to raise their families. Later Goodman Bensman added an East Side facility more convenient to the suburban Jews. The partnership flourished, but its job remained the same, burying people who had lived and died in Milwaukee.

But not for long. Milwaukee Jews kept moving, but now to different cities. People no longer were concerned with fleeing from the Cossacks. The children of these immigrants now were concerned with fleeing from the cold. At sixty-two Max gave up practicing medicine and joined this escape from the tundra. A year after he retired, he and Anne sold their large two-story house on a West Side boulevard and moved to a two-bedroom oceanside apartment in Hollywood, Florida. Just like that. They left Milwaukee forever.

Not really forever. My in laws, like so many vagabond Jews in Florida, were comfortable living there but not comfortable dying there. For the New York snowbird friends that Max and Anne made in Florida, New York was still the center of the universe in a Master of the Universe sense. Florida was a comfortable, low cost way station to eternity, nothing else. Milwaukee may lack New York City's pizzazz, but for my in laws the sentimental attachment was just as strong. They wanted to be buried back there in Spring Hill Cemetery on a small hill alongside my father in law's parents.

Modern funerals are very different. There is no quick hearse ride, no familiar if overbearing rabbi, and no clear list of mourners. The traditional rituals do not lend themselves easily to a two thousand mile trip. To meet this new demand, the funeral industry responded with transportation networks and interstate compacts worthy of UPS and FedEx. After all, from a transport standpoint, moving a body is like moving product, and getting the deceased from death to grave requires faster service than even Second Day Air. The need for more complicated arrangements brought heavy hitters into the funeral business. The family-owned funeral homes began to disappear.

It is not easy to "brand" death, but the new industry came up with a term—"northern shipment." South Florida Jewish newspapers like the Broward County Jewish News are full of advertisements by funeral home conglomerates offering free Chinese buffet dinners at seminars for elderly Jews who are interested in exploring pre-paid plans for "northern shipment." One took place at Dubarry's Chinese, which was close to my in-laws,

Max bought a plan. But the South Florida siren song "all you can eat!" was not for him. Free lemon chicken or not, he kept his loyalty to his hometown by purchasing a plan from Goodman Bensman.

At least that is what he thought he was doing. But while he and my mother in law were living a full and wonderful life in South Florida, Goodman-Bensman was going through a turmoil that matched a West Texas wildcat oil boom. In 1992 that funeral home became a subsidiary of a company whose name sounds like a NPR corporate sponsor--Loewen Group International. Six years later Loewen sold to it to another company, this one with the frighteningly appropriate name Charon, who in Greek mythology was the ferryman of the dead whom the dead person either paid or that poor Greek mortal could not book passage, thus dooming his soul. Charon almost immediately unloaded it to yet another conglomerate.

So was my father in law still doing business with the Goodman-Bensman? Yes and no. He was now dealing with, as they say, an entity. While all of this was going on, he got a letter from Goodman Bensman Reincarnated, very reassuring of course. Every stipulation in his contract would remain valid. But if your bank merges with another bank, is it still the same? Legally, yes, but your own branch might close. On your monthly statement there may be a new ten-dollar "use of a deposit slip" charge. Still, your use this new bank regularly, so with experience you learn its new quirks firsthand and either accept them or take your money some place else.

That is definitely not how a person deals with changes in the funeral business. On these matters, the less everyday experience, the better. You don't want to be dropping in regularly on the undertaker to ask, "Hey, what's going down?" As meticulous a planner as Max was, he was still not going to spend time obsessing about an arrangement he considered rock solid. After all, Max purchased the plan so he would not have to think about death any more than an elderly man has to. He paid for silence.

In fact, though, things were anything but silent financially because Goodman Bensman traded hands again, this time with an ironically nasty twist. A Milwaukee company called Milwaukee Funeral Services (MFS), which for a short time had been Goodman Bensman's rival, bought the old Goodman Bensman from the conglomerate. In the 1990s MFS had been started by a local Jewish entrepreneur who was livid at the price Goodman Bensman, then already a subsidiary of a large corporation, had charged for his mother in law's funeral, so he started a his own funeral business right across the street. He advertised cut-rate prices, just as he did with his large, flourishing, inner city clothing store.

But much more was at stake than the price of Polo knock offs. He also claimed that Goodman Bensman violated Jewish rituals by not taking care of the bodies in accordance with the Hevra Kaddisha's body-washing ritual. "They don't have the appropriate refrigeration," he said to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter. "I think they ice the bodies down. That's not the Jewish way. They're not cattle you know." Bud Lite versus Miller Lite is small potatoes compared to this kind of go-for-the-jugular capitalism.

Reassuring letter or not, what my father in law was unknowingly dealing with was a lot more history, economics, nastiness, and confusion than he had ever anticipated. Had he known, he would have wondered just who in the hell he was doing business with. Knowing Max, if he had any reason to think he should be paying attention, he definitely would have had a Plan B.


My mother in law's death came suddenly. One minute my wife Joy was getting ready for work in Honolulu. The next minute she was having a frantic phone conversation with her sister telling Joy that their mother had suffered a stroke and was going to survive for only a few more hours. Only the day before, Joy had had a perfectly normal phone conversation with her mother. Now we quickly needed to answer questions we had always known would arise but for which we could never had really prepared. Could Joy make the twelve-hour flight to Florida in time to say good-bye to her mother? Should the grandchildren in Baltimore, New York, and Oregon go to Florida or go directly to Milwaukee? What should I do?

Max and Anne had made their earlier funeral arrangements with loving but flawed assumptions. When they were in their seventies, it made sense to assume that there were still people living in Milwaukee who would attend their funeral services. But by the time my mother in law died twenty years later, Milwaukee was an empty place for them. Almost all their relatives and friends had moved away or died, including the only rabbi they ever had. Anne and Max had lived in Florida for over thirty years. Their friends were now Florida snowbirds like themselves.

At seventy-five, it also had made sense to assume, as both my in-laws had, that either one of them would be at the graveside of the other to say their goodbye. That presence would be the final moment of grace and love together, an indelibly symbolic memory for the one who survived to take back to a now much lonelier life in Florida. Now, at ninety-six with bad knees and a serious heart condition, Max was too frail to make the trip. There had been no plans for a Florida funeral, and Milwaukee was too far away. Max faced the possibility that he would have no chance to say a proper farewell to a woman he had loved for almost three-quarters of a century.

Joy felt a terrible sense of displacement on her flight to Fort Lauderdale. She was a woman in late middle age with adult children of her own who felt like a lost child again. One day she is on the phone with her mother and the next… Her father now would be living alone in Florida. What was her role going to be? The burdensome distance between Fort Lauderdale and Honolulu now seemed insurmountable. In the middle of her grieving, she would have leave her father to travel from Florida to Milwaukee for the funeral, then immediately fly back there to help him. And of course she anguished over her father's problem about the funeral.

Within a few hours of Anne's stroke, with Max too distraught to visit her, my brother in law and sister in law began to put a plan into place. The Baltimore wing of the family, including themselves and their children, would go to Florida. I would fly to Milwaukee to check on the final funeral arrangements there. Our two children would join Joy and me in Milwaukee for the burial. Joy would be the only person in either family to go to both places. Mel, my Baltimore brother in law, a nationally known cantor who often presided at funerals, would arrange and help conduct a memorial service in Boca Raton. He also was the phone point of contact with Goodman Bensman.


Mel was the crucial link between the new economies of the funeral industry and my theological deceit. Soon after Joy got to Florida, she called me. "Mel's taking care of everything down here. He can't get a straight answer from Goodman Bensman about whether everything is covered in the prepaid plan, but he thinks they are cheating my father."

"Cheating? How?"

"Mel gets the runaround whenever he asks them about the total cost. They keep saying that they can't tell us yet. It's so hard dealing with them over the phone. He did find out a few things. Mel says that you should officiate the funeral in Milwaukee. He says to tell the Goodman Bensman people that you are a rabbi."

I'm used to performing in public and actually I had often imagined giving a eulogy for my in-laws. Whenever I had thought about this in the past, I got disconcerting feelings. The possibility made me feel proud, even triumphant rather than sad—the son in law pays proper, loving tribute while showing his style. That was hard enough to deal with. Now this. But what's this about being a rabbi?

"I'll put Mel on the phone," Joy said.

"Here's the thing," Mel told me. "Max didn't know this when he thought he was all paid up, but Goodman Bensman adds a four hundred dollars clergy fee unless we furnish the rabbi. So your're going to tell them you're the rabbi."

"You want me to lie about something like that?"


"I don't know. I feel funny about this."

"Come on. It saves four hundred bucks. You know that Anne would have wanted it this way."

I had shopped with my mother in law at enough discount places in Shmata Row and at enough Sample Road flea markets in ninety-degree heat to know that Mel was right on target. Besides, here I was in Honolulu keeping my normal routine, at least for another day, while all of them were struggling so hard in Florida. And my brother in law is hinting that I'm chicken. I couldn't say no.

"Okay, I'll do it, but how am I supposed to know what to do?"

"It's easy. When Joy comes to Milwaukee, she'll bring you my book."

Mel's book is small, black, and tattered—probably pre-tattered at the factory to enhance the clerical aura. It is a life stage book similar to ones that clergy of many faiths carry. The book is small because it's bare bones and portable. A rabbi can hold it in one hand while using the other to hold down his yarmulke at a garlands, bare-feet, and hand-held-chupeh wedding on some gruesomely windy, godforsaken beach. The book has a section for weddings and one for funerals, each clearly marked. In my hands, it would be a "Funerals for Dummies." Mel marked off the required parts and noted where I had options. All I had to do was to remember not to turn to the section marked "weddings."

I arrived in Milwaukee as scheduled, but Joy's flight from Chicago to Milwaukee was cancelled at the last minute, stranding her at O'Hare. I drove the seventy miles to Chicago to pick her up. We then rushed back to Milwaukee in time to pick up our children at the airport.

At the motel that night I studied The Book. Mel had marked it as promised. I planned not to press my luck, just simply to stick with the set script. But when I got to one of the options, the Book of Proverb's "A Woman of Valor," I stopped and read it softly to myself. I wrote "include" lightly in pencil in the margins. Then I practiced reciting the Kaddish over and over. I had said that prayer a thousand times before, but this was different. Words that I usually mumbled through in a crowd became potentially high visibility tongue twisters. Now I would be the enunciator, and others would be the mumblers. Finally I made notes for the eulogy on Residence Inn notepaper with a Residence Inn pen.

The next day, the four of us got to the cemetery early to take care of any last minute details. I was hoping there would not be any, but there was sure to be at least one. I parked our rental car next to the funeral director's black sedan a short distance from the gravesite. He and I got out to greet one another in the mist that was beginning to turn to freezing rain. The director expressed his condolences, leaning into our rental Pontiac to make sure Joy could hear him. "Everything is taken care of," he said to her. "Please, you do not have to concern yourselves with any of the arrangements."

Then he said to me, "Who is the rabbi?"

In front of my grown children whom I had taught never to lie, I said, "I am."

He looked directly at me, and I looked back, a stare down between two hombres dressed in black with Boot Hill in the shadows. But no six-guns were drawn. He walked away. He knew. Of course he knew. The brief, hooded expression on his face had told me. But despite my shame about lying to his face in front of God as well as my own grandparents who were buried just a few yards away away, I always assumed that I would get away with it, not because he was a yellow-bellied, sap-suckin' coward but because, entity or not, he was a professional. In fact, this man was more than that. He was a mensch, a real mensch. He was not about to haggle over credentials at a time like this. I felt slimy, but I had work to do.

The four of us silently walked the few muddy yards and joined the others who were already seated under the canopy. I sat Joy down in front, squeezed her hand, glanced at my children flanking her, and went up to the small podium to begin. I looked out at the small number of mourners—two of Anne's cousins who still remained in the city, some of our old West Side friends, and my aunt with her eighty-seven year old boyfriend. I took a breath and reminded myself to go slowly.

So it was then that this shepherd first called out to his flock.

    And his flock responded:


What an amateur I was. Any real rabbi would know that the first rule of worship when old people are in the audience is "Thou shalt raise thine voice to the heavens!" But as the service went on, I felt proud and moved as I had always thought I would be, partly because it was performance, partly because of the ritual's simple, powerful elegance, and most of all, because I had the opportunity to say and do things that Anne and Max truly deserved:

A Woman of Valor

A woman of valor who can find?

For her price is far above rubies….

The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her,

And he hath no lack of gain.

She doeth him good and not evil

All the days of her life…

Strength and dignity are her clothing…

Her children rise up and call her blessed…

Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain;

But a woman that fearth the LORD, she shall be praised.

Give her the fruit of her hands;

And let her works praise her in the gates.

When it was time for my eulogy, I looked down at my notes then pushed them aside. It was just too cold to keep people any longer.

I carefully recited the Kaddish, stumbling once, and then sprinkled a packet of Israeli soil into the lowered casket. My family, followed by the others, shoveled dirt into the grave. We stayed there for a moment, Joy longer than the others.

As we said our good-byes to the mourners, my aunt hugged me and said, "You did good, but don't give up your day job." I went over to thank the funeral director, but I did not linger. He acted like he did not expect me to.

A few hours later the four of us scattered again. As the sun came up at O'Hare, Joy and I hugged good-bye.

She called me from Florida the next day. "Is everything finally taken care of with Goodman Bensman?" I asked.

"Not yet. There are two additional charges. One is a hundred-fifty dollar charge for a 'seasonal digging fee'."

"Seasonal Digging fee?"

"It's an extra charge for grave digging because the ground was frozen."

I pictured my brother in law ordering me to put on a hard hat, grab a pickaxe and further honor Anne's memory. "Hey, buddy, cold enough for ya? 'Local Seven sent me down here to dig the Primakow grave. You know, I could really use a cup of fresh coffee, and are those doughnuts?

"And there's this other charge." Joy said.

"For what this time?"

"Three hundred dollars because my mother was not a member of B'nal Brith. My father can't remember if she was a member or not. I've been looking through her old magazines. Lots of Hadassahs but no B'nai Briths."

"She wasn't a member of NASCAR either. Are they going to charge your father for that, too? Doesn't this sound screwy to you? Why would they penalize someone for not being a member, instead of giving a deduction for being a member when a person buys the plan?"

"I don't know. Mel says to let it go. We're all too exhausted to find out."

* * * * *

Neal Milner is a writer, storyteller, and teacher who lives in Honolulu.


from the November 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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