How on earth do you plan and prepare yourself for the funeral of a parent? It’s a rite of passage that has to be worked through, but you’ve never done it before and nobody has given you a blueprint or a template.
For years Mum insisted that she wanted to be cremated as she was confident that nobody would visit her grave, and she even pre-paid the Coop for a funeral, making sure I knew exactly where to find the papers. However Jews somehow usually return to their roots, especially where death rituals are concerned, and around the turn of the year Mum decided that she wanted a full Jewish funeral.
This was a little problematic. Many Jews (even secular ones) belong to a synagogue as the membership includes a contribution to a burial society. Mum had resigned from her local Shul quite a few years ago as she argued that the membership was too expensive. On making enquiries I was told that the funeral she wanted would probably cost about £16,000 so I contacted her local synagogue, and the United Synagogue Burial Society to re-enrol her. They were able to trace her original membership but were a little vague on when she joined and left so we agreed on a lump sum that would cover the missing years, with a moratorium of six months. All that was then left was to make sure she stayed with us until the end of July. Obliging mother that she was, she added on another couple of months.
She also kept insisting that she wanted to be buried with her parents and grandparents in an East London cemetery that is now closed. Although we frequently reminded her of this, she kept reiterating her wish. Eventually she agreed on a compromise: she would be laid to rest in the same burial ground as her brother.
As the months wore on it became apparent that Mum’s health was deteriorating and this gave me an opportunity to think ahead and to try to imagine how the funeral would be. In my mind I was trying to rehearse my farewells, but nothing prepares you for the time when it arrives.
On the morning that she died I was very aware that the Burial Society needed to be contacted before we could proceed beyond the issuing of the Death Certificate. When a local undertaker was appointed to us we made it clear to him that we are Jewish and would make our own arrangements, whilst liaising back and forth with the Society and arranging a date. We always bury our dead with as much haste as possible, but the following day was both Yom Kippur (the most solemn of Jewish festivals) and Saturday – the Sabbath. The logical step would have been to arrange the funeral for the Sunday, but my eldest son had arranged to fly back home from South America on that day. Mum had always made him promise that he would say Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) for her so we had to delay until the Monday.
I must have been on some kind of auto-pilot that day. I had to get to the deli to collect the food that had been ordered. We always celebrate, or commiserate, with victuals: fish balls, cake and beigels with smoked salmon, cream cheese, egg and onion and chopped herring are served with gallons of tea. As a child I remember Mum insisting that tots of brandy and whisky were also available for the men when they returned to the house of mourning. I also had to call at the synagogue to collect the mourners’ chairs (the next of kin sit on low chairs in a house of mourning) and the prayer books.
The other preparations include covering mirrors, making sure a pair of candles are ready to be lit before evening prayers, and keeping a Yahrzeit or memorial light burning.
My sister arrived with one of Mum’s eldest friends, who had made the journey from the south coast to say her farewells and the three of us prepared the food and left everything ready for when we would arrive back home.
The funeral was at 3 in the afternoon on a drizzly miserable day, but at least the rain stopped by the time we reached the cemetery. Usually my first sight of a coffin is enough to make the tears flow, but somehow it didn’t happen this time, probably because I’d been with Mum after she died and had said some of my farewells to her then. The first thing to happen was that Kriah was performed. We had a cut made in our clothes, after which we recited a prayer and then tore the cut with our hands to express our grief.
Following on was the first part of the funeral service (where men pray separately from the women in the Orthodox manner), after which my mother was laid to rest. My sister and I were offered soil from the grave and we each took three hands full to throw on the coffin. Then any males who wished to were invited to fill in the grave with spades full of earth.
The service concluded with a return to the prayer hall where my son recited Kaddish twice and the other mourners were encouraged to pay their commiserations to the two of us as we sat on the low mourners’ chairs. My son read the eulogy I had penned for Mum, and added a few words of his own from the grandchildren’s perspective as he believed mine were not a sufficient expression of what she had meant to us. He reprised this again after evening prayers, and I’m including the full text at the bottom of this blog.
Back home to comforting cups of tea and the food we suddenly realised that we needed by that time of the afternoon. A few people returned home with us and eventually we were left alone until the mourners and the Rabbi arrived for 8pm prayers. On both occasions I was concerned that there would not be a Minyan (the requirement for ten men to be present for orthodox prayers) but friends, family and my husband’s Masonic Lodge all rallied to the cause and we had more than enough. My son was called on to recite Kaddish a further three times, so Mum had her wishes fulfilled fivefold. And I was deeply moved when I watched the back of my cousin’s head bobbing up and down as he prayed for mother’s soul.
Of course there were occasions throughout the day when the tears fell of their own volition, but friends and family encouraged them. The kindnesses of everybody, the instinctive understanding that nothing more nor less than a long and loving hug was needed, and the words of comfort from those who had previously experienced the same bereavement and grief were solace in themselves. If I were more orthodox in my Jewish beliefs I would even have wanted to join the congregation of the Rabbi who conducted the funeral service, or the one who attended in the evening.
We only said prayers on the one occasion and didn’t sit Shiva for the full week. Our family is now so small that there wouldn’t have been enough people to visit every night, but part of me yearns for that week long indulgence. It’s a way of coming to terms with your loss, of mourning the dead, and of letting life and grief flood over you before you feel the need to start to return to the real world with all its mundane duties.
Phyllis Frankel, daughter of Simey and Jenny nee Angel, entered this world on the first day of the 1926 General Strike; her Uncle Jack often used to relate how he had to cycle to see his sister, Jenny, at Mother Levy’s, the Jewish Maternity Home in Whitechapel. Mother and daughter returned home to live at 39 New Road, a place Phyllis frequently returned to in her memories. Before her dementia became too advanced she would recall running up the steps, through the front door and then down to the basement kitchen, where her grandmother, Rebecca Angel, would be sitting or preparing food. Phyllis had an older brother, Albert, and a sister, Doris, who died of meningitis before her younger sibling was born.
Phyllis’s first school was Myrdle Street, then predominantly Jewish and now a Muslim girls’ school. Her Grandma Becky could see into the school playground from her house in parallel New Road and would often throw her an orange.
A change of address saw the family running (and living above) the Crown and Dolphin pub at the corner of Cannon Street Road and Cable Street, where Simon was registered in the Phone Book for 1934, and then moving a little further north to run businesses in Wood Green and Edmonton. When Simey suffered his first heart attack Phyllis insisted on leaving school to work at the Post Office and contribute to the family finances, but her furious father insisted that she enrol at Pitman’s College to learn shorthand and typing, after which she went out to work as a secretary. Some of the longest enduring of her female friendships date back to those days. This was also the period when she started to smoke, much to the disapproval of her parents.
During the war she worked for a seed company, which was classed as war work, so she never entered the armed services. However it was during the war years that she first met her future husband, Bob, at the Royal Tottenham. Theirs was a very on/off relationship, with him frequently going AWOL so that he could see her, and with her throwing engagement rings back at him and being forced to choose between him and whichever other boyfriend was pursuing her. She eventually agreed to marry him, flying to Dublin for their honeymoon in August 1947. Their first home was again over another Hackney pub that Jenny (by now widowed) was running with her son Albert. She gave birth to their first daughter, Sandra, in January 1952.
Phyllis and Bob migrated south over the River to Forest Hill and then to Catford, where daughter number two, Judith, was born in June 1955. The family remained in South London, moving first to run a sweet shop in Tulse Hill, and then to Phyllis’s dream house in Streatham, whilst she also returned to office work. However the dream was shattered when the marriage ended in divorce in 1968. She carried on with her independent life working variously as a legal secretary, an employment agency manageress and a typing pool supervisor. Yet she kept a secret hidden for many years: she had a gambling habit. Everybody thought she worked at two jobs (at night she would undertake bar work or cashier in a restaurant) to save enough to buy her own home, but she was spieling most evenings after work and crawling to bed in time for a few hours’ sleep before heading back to the office. Eventually she accepted her addiction, joined GA and curbed her habit. But she still couldn’t resist the lures of the National Lottery.
She then lived variously in Putney, Richmond and Barnes – always remaining close to her beloved River Thames and refusing to move back to North London. After retirement she wasn’t content to sit in a rocking chair and knit clothes for her four grandchildren – although she frequently got out the wool and needles for her own children when they were small. Despite gradually becoming disabled with arthritis and COPD she still insisted on shopping in Kingston once a weak, hailing a Com Cab at Richmond station on the way home, courtesy of her Taxi Card. She also enjoyed her weekly outings on the free bus to ASDA at Roehampton, when she had the opportunity to chat and laugh with friends, thanks to the helpful bus driver who secured their tartan shopping trolleys. She loved Tony Bennett, opera and classical music and often had to turn down Classic FM in order to hear phone callers.
Most friends and family (many of whom are now no longer with us, are too infirm or live too far away to be here today) probably recall a strong-willed, bull-headed (she was born under Taurus), judgemental, tenacious and fiercely independent lady clacking around on her stiletto heels. She told it as it was, was quick to criticise others, and did not care who she offended or upset. Friends sometimes feared for her outspoken tongue when she was out in public, but her diminutive stature (all four feet eleven inches of her) belied what her GP recently referred to as ‘her indomitable spirit’. And this spirit kept her fighting until the very end. She should have given in peacefully weeks ago but fought to stay with us, although longing to be reunited with her beloved Grandma Rebecca and adored Auntie Ettie. Eventually the COPD and Vascular Dementia won and Phyllis is probably looking down on us now, criticising these words and making remarks about the clothes some of us are wearing. And if you are there Mum, thanks a bundle for dying Erev Yom Kippur and making Judith and Sandra pull out all the stops to make the necessary arrangements in time. You always did things your way.