The Last Journey: You Can’t Take It With You
By Rabbi Leiby Burnham
“Quit while you’re ahead” is one of the simple but wise rules of life. But for David Kime, Jr., the rule was a bit different. It went something like this: “Don’t quit even when you’re dead.” David, a longtime resident of York, PA, had a lifelong love of cheeseburgers and refused to let death stop him from enjoying his favorite food. David went down to the grave with a Burger King Whopper Jr. on top, extra mayo and pickles on the side.
David Kime, Jr. was a lot of things. He was a father, a grandfather, a husband, a World War II veteran, and a Purple Heart Recipient. But the way he chose to take his final journey on earth was not with a military funeral, not with a quiet family funeral service, but rather with one last trip to the local Burger King. His hearse pulled up to the drive-through window, and the driver ordered a Whopper Jr. (the full-size Whopper had too many calories), as did everyone in his funeral procession. And while everyone ate theirs in the car, his was placed above his casket as it was lowered into the ground.
His daughter Linda Phiel eulogized him. “He always lived by his own rules,” she said. “His version of eating healthy was the lettuce on the Whopper Jr.” She spoke of his lifelong love of fast food, and how he chose to live his life his way, despite the attempts of his family to get him to eat more healthfully. “But he considered us health freaks because we ate things that were green, like broccoli.”
And now he can go on his Final Journey with the things he loved most: a toasted white roll, burger patty, mayo, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, and cheese.
Jews, in extreme contrast, have a similar but totally different custom. When a great Rabbi dies, his funeral procession often stops at the yeshivah or beis medrash in which he spent thousands of hours studying Torah and counseling people to live a more exalted life. It too is a way of commemorating the way that person chose to live his life. However, it seems that not all funeral stops are created equal. One speaks of a moral choice to dedicate a life to a higher purpose, and one speaks of a choice to never eat broccoli.
It used to be that funerals were the one time when people could move away from the frivolous, when the resounding finality of death would “wake” people up to the value of life. It was a time when people would overlook the mundane parts of someone’s life and focus on the things that were more elevated: the deceased’s kindness, love, generosity, volunteerism, dedication to family, etc. It was a place and time to celebrate how a loved one fulfilled his life’s mission of “Leave this world a little better than you found it.”
But more and more, funerals are becoming venues to highlight areas of life that did not make the world a better place at all. Themed funerals are a growing trend in the USA, with sports, food, and hobbies taking the focus away from the traits of kindness, love, and giving.
Caskets licensed by the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL, with logos and team colors, are growing more common. But that is only where the sports theme starts. At the recent wake for a Pittsburgh man, his body was reclining in a Lazy Boy, covered by his favorite Steelers blanket, and he was propped up as if he were watching the TV in front of him, which played a loop of great moments in Steelers football. A Dallas woman was recently buried in a Dallas Cowboys’ coffin of silver and blue, dressed in a custom-made Cowboys’ jersey, Cowboys’ socks, and Cowboys’ pants (Cowboys’ tennis shoes were not allowed, as the dead are not buried in shoes … )
Everyone at the funeral wore Cowboys’ clothes, and even the minister wore a Cowboys’ jersey under his blazer. “It was such a big part of her life; why not make it part of her send- off, too?” explained her daughter.
Aggie Field of Honor is a burial place for fans of the Texas A and M football teams. The graves are pointed to the nearby stadium and the deceased can hear the roar of the crowd and “participate in the sports activities even after death.” One family asked for a memorial service on the 18th green of their father’s favorite golf course. At the funeral, Mr. Duffey, the funeral concierge service operator, instructed, “Line up his buddies and hit balls.”
A New York Times article titled “It’s My Funeral and I’ll Serve Ice Cream If I Want To” highlighted that it is not only sports that are celebrated. People today are looking for novelty in their sendoffs and want to highlight what was important in their life. They look to control every aspect of their funerals, from having waiters pass out chocolate-covered marshmallows on silver trays to hosting elaborate parties at country clubs or favorite restaurants.
People are dying for innovation, so creatively shaped and painted caskets have seen a surge in recent years. Caskets that resemble shoes, guitar cases, chocolate truffles, couches, and Nintendo Gameboys are only the tip of the iceberg (and yes, you can get the iceberg coffin too!). Even the largest and most staid casket-maker has turned to themed services: “Batesville now offers themed services, such as ‘Cool Jazz’ funerals, gold-plated caskets, or the ‘Outdoorsman’ package which includes a coffin outfitted like a hunting lodge, complete with gun rack, bearskin rug, and elk antlers.”
The Gemara (Shabbos 153a) records a teaching from Rabi Eliezer: “Repent one day before you die.” His students asked him, “Does a man know the day of his death?” He replied that what he meant was that a person should live his life repenting for and fixing previous mistakes because we never know when we are going to die. Rabi Eliezer was telling his students that we cannot know when our last chance to create our legacy will be, so we need to live our entire lives acting out the legacy we want to leave behind – a legacy of integrity, sincerity, and a constant striving for betterment.
The absurdity of the Burger King funeral highlights to us how a wasted legacy can look. The Gemara (Brachos Sa) gives us a list of things to think about when we are struggling with our yetzer hara (evil inclination). The last of them, the one thing that should force us to act properly when all else fails, is to think about the day of our death. Do we really want the action we are about to do to become part of our eternal legacy? Do we want a “Burger King funeral,” a funeral where people have to stretch the truth in order to sound respectful, or do we want a funeral where our legacy stands proud on its own?
Henry David Thoreau encapsulated this idea in his enjoinder not to live life “as if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” Every day we build our eternity, every day we create another stone in the monument to our lives, and every moment wasted is a missing brick in that monument.
If we begin each day asking ourselves, “What will my legacy look like? What will people remember most about me?” we will decidedly live our lives more fully, more focused, and more fruitfully.
Rabbi Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a Rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer from Detroit. He works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does campus and community outreach.
First published July 1st, 2013, in Binah Magazine. Republished with the kind permission of Binah & the author.