The decision of the United Synagogue -- or rather the recommendation of its Rabbinical Council - to relax the rule that only rabbis or ministers be permitted to deliver funeral eulogies is a welcome triumph of common sense over common nonsense. What puzzles me is that the rule was ever introduced in the first place.
In times past all manner of men were permitted - indeed encouraged - to deliver hespedim, or orations, at the funerals of those whom they had known, the only stipulation being that no hesped should be too long, and thus bring unreasonably delay to the interment.
My great-grandfather died in 1910, and was buried, as a mark of respect, adjacent to the tomb of the saintly rabbi Eliezer Gordon of Tels (Lithuania) at the Edmonton cemetery of the Federation of Synagogues. I am told that at his funeral, there were several short orations spoken in the prayer hall by leading members of the many friendly societies with which he was associated, often as a founder, and whose names appear on his tombstone.
At the funerals of my father (1987) and mother (2006), my wish to deliver the hespedim was readily granted by the authorities of the Western Synagogue, who understood entirely the motives that impelled me to make these requests.
These motives were twofold. In the first place I wished, as the eldest child, to pay public tribute to my parents, and I could think of no better way of doing this than as I and other mourners were about to accompany their mortal remains to the grave. In the second, I recoiled with horror at the prospect of hespedim being delivered by clergy who - however learned, sincere and well-meaning - really did not know the deceased at all.
It has been my lot to attend a large number of funerals at which this has happened. No one, in my experience, is more embarrassed than the minister himself. What can he say? Some pious platitudes, perhaps, liberally sprinkled with quotations from the sedra of the week.
At my father's levoyah, I spoke about his many anonymous acts of charity, his activities in the Jewish community and his unfailing good sense. At my mother's, I dwelt on her wartime service as a nurse, her welcome obsession with the pursuit of justice, and her unfailing orthodox faith that triumphed over the many personal tragedies she suffered.
If I may say so, no words of a rabbi could have matched the authenticity with which these sentiments were expressed.
A year or so ago it was my duty to attend a levoyah in which someone - a woman whose identity neither I nor the principal mourners ever discovered - approached the coffin to thank the deceased for having befriended her at a moment of crisis in her life. It was a beautiful and utterly justified intervention, all the more poignant for its spontaneity, and for the comfort which it clearly brought to the bereaved.
So I cannot agree with the Rabbi Schochet, the chairman of the United Synagogue's Rabbinical Council, that the delivery of the funeral hesped by a rabbi "remains the ideal". It is, or should be, a last resort. In times gone by it was the custom (I have witnessed it occasionally in the UK) for each participant - male and female - to approach the coffin and ask forgiveness of the deceased for any wrong that might have been done to her/him in life. But, certainly within the mainstream, most ladies and gentlemen who attend the funeral of a friend, relative or colleague remain, nowadays, awkward, almost-silent bystanders. This is quite wrong. They should, within the limits that time and circumstances permit, be incorporated as fully as possible within the funeral service.
And what of the ceremonial at the graveside? The United Synagogue now permits women as well as men to help in the important task of building the mound of earth that must cover the coffin. When a cousin was buried at the United Synagogue's Waltham Abbey cemetery last year, the deceased's personal siddur rested on the coffin as it was lowered into the grave, and was buried with her. And I read with interest a statement from the Rabbinical Centre of Europe explaining that the Orthodox religious authorities in Germany (apparently following guidance from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel) , recently permitted a Jewish émigré from Russia to be buried (in accordance with his last wishes) together with a bottle of vodka.
Let's all drink to that!