The Unclaimed Dead

This week’s Torah portion is Chaye Sarah, and begins with the death of Sarah.

After the ordeal of having to nearly sacrifice his son, Abraham returns home to the death of his wife. (Some commentators connect the two events, saying Sarah died when she heard about what Abraham had done.) Abraham then begins the difficult process of making arrangements, something we all find ourselves in the middle of after a passing. The grief is there, but the mourning can not fully start until the arrangements are made.

The same is true in our contemporary mourning practice. One is not considered a “mourner” until after the burial. Between death and burial is an intermediate time known as aninut during which one makes the necessary arrangements.

Abraham sets out to make the arrangements. Having left his ancestral home, he is living among the Hittites in Canaan.  He goes to see the local chieftain, Ephron ben Zohar, to inquire about purchasing a cave in which to bury Sarah. Ephron knows of Abraham’s reputation as a leader and man of God, and so offers to gift him the cave. Abraham insists however on paying for it, and a deal is struck for Abraham to purchase the cave, and he proceeds to bury Sarah within.

There is much that can be said about the merits of a sale versus a gift. Gifts imply an ongoing relationship (a subtle expectation that the gesture of a gift will be returned at some point) while a sale is a clear transaction. Gifts are open ended. A sale is final.

So while some will read this about land claims, it perhaps has to do more with the need to make “final arrangements” when it comes to mourning a loved one. Part of our mourning practice is to provide some formal act of transition between experiencing the death of a loved one and the beginning of the mourning process. This is the function of the funeral and burial. Sometimes circumstances require a service at a later date, or unconnected with burial. But the need to do right by our loved ones so we can begin to heal is a powerful motivator, the need to honor those who have died with ritual and acknowledgement is a necessary process. Abraham’s actions demonstrate this.

Two weeks ago I had the honor to participate in a commemoration organized by Interfaith Works in conjunction with the Thurston County Coroner’s Office. It was a memorial service—held in conjunction with All Souls Day/Dio de los Muertos—for all the unclaimed dead this past year. These were the people who did not have anyone to care for their bodies, or unbelievably, those whose families did not want to take responsibility and walked away.

The ceremony felt very much like a tikkun, a repair. To leave the dead unacknowledged felt like a tear in the fabric of what is right. These seven people did not have anyone to ritualize their passing, did not have anyone to offer a prayer or some words. Since this usually falls to the family and friends, and there weren’t any, it then falls to the community to do so. We, like Abraham, insist on making the arrangements for our honored dead.

I was asked to offer a eulogy, an interesting prospect for people I did not know and for whom there is no one to fill in the details of the life lived. I opened with the poem “Each of Us Has a Name” by Zelda, translated by Marcia Falk. And then here is what I shared:

We recall the names.

Names are often what we leave behind. A name etched on granite, on a headstone, on a wall, printed on paper.

Or a name etched on our hearts, on our minds.

We know the power of names. Our ancient biblical ancestor Abraham, as we know him now, but his name was originally Abram, his name changed to Abraham, father of many nations, when he was granted by God with the covenant.

His grandson Jacob, also in covenant with God, whose encounter with an angel in the middle of the night resulting in a blessing and a change of his name, from Jacob to Israel, “one who wrestles with God”, a name that will come to define a people for millennia to come.

The power of a name.

Think about your own name. Maybe you were named after someone at birth. Why were you given the name you have? What hopes and dreams were meant for you when your name was bestowed upon you? What family history is wrapped up in your last name? Do you have a nickname? Did you change your name? Did you choose your name, perhaps after some significant life event.

For we know that a name is much more than a name. A name is a life, a life of meaning.

We come to remember these honored dead. Defined, as we remember them here, only by their names. We do not have the stories that made up their lives. But the name is only an entry way into understanding their life.

These people: Annette Paula Emerick, Edward Harvey Epstein, Cleveland Anthony duBois, Jordan C. Silver, Juanita K. Hinchliffe, Christoper J. Rabe, Larry G. Ryan. Someone gave them the name that they have. Someone bestowed upon them this blessing of a name. What was in their minds when they did so? What family history was in their last name? Was the middle name “Harvey” after a beloved uncle? Or what is the story of the “Hinchcliffe” family? Someone thought and cared to bestow upon a name. They are not just individuals but members of a family, a lineage, a heritage.

And as we think about these beloved dead, let us not just stop at their names. Let us think about the person who gave them the name, who held them in their arms and whispered their name. Or used their name in scolding them, telling them to cut it out. Or who called out their name in fear and panic and reminded them to look both ways before crossing the street.

And let us remember the fact that they were called by this name by family and friends. Spoken as an invitation to get a beer after work. Or called out in joy by a young niece or nephew. Or spoken softly by a beloved partner.

Their bodies might not be claimed at death, but throughout life their lives were claimed by anyone who sought them out by name.

It is in this way we can bestow our love and empathy upon them. As we recall what it is like to be called by our names, the love shown when our name is spoken by someone, the pride and heritage we carry when we sign our surname, we can project that same feeling upon these honored dead as we call their names.

And just as they were claimed in life, they are claimed in death. By calling their names. This is what we honor here today. The blessing of their names. The blessing of their lives.

The need for ritual at the end of life is so important, whether carried out by a loving husband, as Abraham did for Sarah, or by a faithful community, as we did for the unclaimed dead of Thurston County. It is in this way we give honor not only to those who have died, but to those of us left behind. It is both a final, and a first, step in the healing process. All lives are thus claimed.

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