Funeral Processionals: Where Cultures and Generations Intersect
The first funeral processional described in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, focuses on Ya’akov—the patriarch Jacob and the progenitor of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Channeling generations of biblical commentary, the Me-am Lo’ez paints a striking visual of the elaborate processional, emphasizing how both Jews and Egyptians alike paid their respects:
I el aron era de oro kon piyedras presiozas i kovechado kon vestas de reynado. I una korona grande en su kavesera i los shevatim ivan kargando el aron sigun el seder ke avizemos ariva i toda la jente de Mitsrayim biyen vestidos i ermados ivan kaminando adelantre yorando i endichando...I sinkuenta esklavos ivan i vinian entre la levaya arochando a la jente modos de golores i almeskale i aziyendo lugar para ke puedan kaminar la jente ke no se pezen una el otro…
"And [Jacob’s] coffin was made of gold, encrusted with precious jewels and covered with royal vestments. And on the head of the coffin was a large crown, and the tribes [Jacob’s sons] carried the coffin in the order described above, and all the Egyptian people walked, wearing their best clothes, crying and mourning....And fifty servants joined the processional, carrying all sorts of perfumes, and they also kept space open so that the people could walk without pressing one against the other."
Not only does this scene indicate the respect Ya’akov garnered beyond his own family, but it also illustrates the connections between Jews and Egyptians in the ancient Near East.
Jewish and Muslim funerals in Salonica
The story in Genesis provided a template for Jews over the generations to model their own burial practices that honored the dead. Jews in the Ottoman Empire into the twentieth century patterned their funerary practices on the biblical model enhanced by cross-cultural dialogue with their Muslim neighbors.
As a Jew growing up in Salonica, a culturally diverse city home to Jews, Muslims, and Christians before the Holocaust, David Perahia observed the uncanny similarities between Muslim and Jewish funerals—especially the processionals.
According to Perahia, Salonica’s Muslims would follow the hearse with food to the cemetery as onlookers threw candy and coins as the processional passed—a tradition that Perahia notes was enthralling for the local children. Jewish funeral processions for wealthy individuals in Salonica were similarly elaborate with up to twelve rabbis behind the coffin, followed by flowers, musicians, and a children’s choir—an elaborate scene reminiscent of Ya’akov’s grand processional in the Bible. Consistent with the kortar mortaja and the bet ha-hayim, Perahia’s account also shows that Muslim and Jewish communities did not shield children from death.
Honoring Seattle’s synagogue leaders
In Seattle, the processionals for rabbis made indelible impressions on the young people who witnessed them. Even in their seventies and eighties, community members recall these processionals in detail.
In an oral history interview, Solomon “Mo” Azose illustrates the grand processional for his grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Solomon Azose, that traversed nine miles from the Central District to the northern outskirts of the city:
SOLOMON AZOSE: My grandfather died in 1919. He was only here for about 10 years...at that time the cemetery was out on 102nd and Aurora where the old cemetery is there. And there was [sic] 40 cars going out there and you can imagine, in 1919, roads were really scarce. The cars were not that great. 40 cars—he must have been pretty popular here in Seattle.
Similarly, when Rabbi Avraham Maimon passed away in 1924, there was also a major processional with other striking visual elements. Elazar Behar recalls the funeral, which he witnessed as a child in Seattle:
ELAZAR BEHAR: It was early Saturday morning when Yitshak Yisrael came by the synagogue—he used to come very early. He lived one block from Rabbi Maimon at that time who lived on 17th and what’s now East Alder. And he told my dad that he thought the rabbi had died—that Hakham Maimon had died...My dad had brought the children down from our Talmud Torah and he had lined them up in the street and he gave them each a candle with a black ribbon on it. And when the funeral was going to start the men came by, and, like they did in the old country, they took the casket from the house, put it on their shoulders and they marched singing certain songs...We went up to 19th avenue, down 19th avenue to Fir Street, and up Fir Street a half a block to the then being built—not completed—Bikur Cholim that was on 20th and East Fir, on Fir Street.
Behar recalls that his father interrupted a school day in the Sephardic Talmud Torah (religious school) to not only encourage young students to attend Rabbi Maimon’s funeral, but to actively participate.
The multigenerational engagement among Sepharadim at the “end” of the life cycle—both in the Ottoman Empire and in Seattle—tangibly illustrates that the life cycle is, indeed, a cycle: A continuous sequence where beginning and end overlap. With the cemetery central to many Sephardic communities, it became a living institution, and Sepharadim were raised to engage and confront the life cycle at every phase. With communities to guide them through the rhythms of each life cycle event, no moment was experienced alone.