Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie has an essay at Huffington Post.com titled “Funeral Fiascos: Should Jews Rethink How We Honor the Dead?”
Rabbi Yoffie raises a number of good points about who presents a eulogy at a funeral, how many people speak, and what they say. Based on my experience attending hundreds of funerals and memorial services, he is right on. Here are a few highlights of his essay:
“A friend of mine recently attended the funeral of someone he had known for many years. About a dozen people got up to speak. Most of them spoke badly. Often the eulogizers ended up talking not about the deceased but about themselves. When the funeral was finally over, at least an hour and a half later, my friend was frustrated and angry. “I cared about this person,” he said, “and she deserved a more fitting farewell.”
Jewish funerals have changed in the last several decades, and not always for the better. Some of the changes were both understandable and welcome. At a time when all ritual was becoming less formal, Jews wanted funeral services that were more personal, intimate, and heartfelt. Therefore, when a death occurred, instead of calling on the rabbi for the eulogy, a close member of the family — perhaps a child or sibling of the deceased — was sometimes called upon to say a few words.
So far, so good. I have frequently been deeply moved by the eloquence of a daughter speaking of her father at his funeral, sharing memories and experiences with power and immediacy that no other speaker could possibly provide. A family member or close friend is often in a position to do what a member of the clergy cannot.
But once this door was opened, a variety of difficulties came into play. Family members discovered that when a close relative died, there was an expectation that one of them would speak — even if they had no desire to do so. Since Jewish burials take place as soon as possible after the death, individuals still reeling from the impact of a loss find themselves under pressure — real or self-imposed — to talk at the funeral and represent the family to the community. Some refuse and feel guilty. Others agree but find the task difficult and painful. Either way, an unfair burden is imposed on those who are in profound distress.”