The funerals beat

The first story I covered for the Jerusalem Post was a funeral, and one of the worst. Six members of the Ushrenko family, crossing three generations and including a three month old infant, all buried in a row at a cemetery at Kibbutz Givat Brenner.

An honor guard from the Nahal Brigade carries Sgt.  Eitan Barak to his grave. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

An honor guard from the Nahal Brigade carries First Sergeant Eitan Barak to his grave in Herzliyah on Sunday. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

They were all murdered one by one the night before, by a disgruntled employee who worked at one of the family restaurants. It was a surprisingly quiet funeral. Maybe because Russian Israelis are more reserved, maybe it was the general feeling of shock at the brutality of the crime, or maybe simply because there was hardly anyone to mourn them – almost the entire family in Israel had been wiped out.

Since then there’s been probably another two dozen funerals I’ve covered, give or take. Most have been “national” events, soldiers who fell in duty or Israeli civilians killed in terror attacks. Other than that there’s been big criminal stories like the Ushrenkos, or the passing of a major Israeli public figure, like Arik Einstein or Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

It’s usually the same drill when it’s a funeral for a tragic event – fade into the scenery, pull nice quotes from the eulogies and friends or loved ones you meet, and get pictures of some mourners or of the coffin wrapped in the Israeli flag (if a soldier) or the body wrapped in a talit (if a civilian). Describe the scene, try to get an idea of who the victim was, and make yourself scarce.

Sometimes there’s moments that stick out. There was the house visit I paid in Oranit to the family of pilot Lt.-Col. (res.) Noam Ron, who died along with Maj. (res.) Erez Flekser when their Cobra crashed during a training flight. The family was crushed but especially kind and a few of them wore t-shirts Noam had printed up for family trips around the globe. My mother-in-law lives not far away from them and one night recently I tried to find the house again. I wanted to remember what it looked like, maybe see if a light was on inside, but all the streets and houses in the yishuv look the same.

There was the funeral for the five members of the Fogel family, knifed to death in their house in the West Bank settlement of Itamar by two Palestinian men on the night of March 11th, 2011. Speaking before thousands of mourners at another “national event” funeral, Moti, the brother of Udi Fogel, the father of the family, said something that stuck out to me to this day.

Calling to his brother he said “it’s very hard for me to see all the people who came here. If I could, I would have them all leave and hug you and whisper in your ear, let’s go play soccer one last time. All the symbols about settlement, the land of Israel, and the people of Israel, are attempts to forget the simple fact that is riddled with pain: you are dead. You are dead and no symbol will bring you back. More than anything, this funeral must be a private event.”

There was also the funeral on Sunday night for First Sergeant Eitan Barak, the first fatality for the IDF in Operation Protective Edge. It stuck out partly because of the speaker who opened the event with instructions on what to do if there’s a rocket siren – if you’re towards the back of the crowd try to find cover, if you’re closer in just lie down and wait it out.

The funerals and shiva visits are all pretty routine, but the past two have been harder. When the body of Gil-ad Shaer, 17, was brought out at the ceremony in Talmon on July 1st, I thought there’d been a mistake. It looked like merely a talit on a gurney, like they’d forgotten the body. A second later it dawned on me that no, this is just the body of a slight teenage boy, who’d been killed over two weeks earlier. That funeral was worse, maybe because the tragedy had been dragged out for the entire 18 days that it was widely known that the boys were almost certainly killed just after the kidnapping.

Something about his father Ofir’s eulogy got to me, the way he found comfort in what he said was the heroism his son showed by calling the 100 dispatch and whispering from the back seat that he’d been kidnapped. Driving off, a bit drained from the funeral, the heat in the West Bank, and the past 18 days covering the story, I got a text that the tape had been leaked. I listened to it right away, over and over, hearing the gunshots we’d been told about from day one, as well as a new revelation – the voices of the killers saying in Hebrew “head down, hands up”.

Sunday’s funeral for First Sergeant Eitan Barak was also a hard one, but not for the usual reasons. There wasn’t any shouting, there wasn’t a young son praying kaddish for his father, and one relative, his sister Noa, gave a rather positive eulogy full of funny anecdotes about her little brother who “when you were born I thought you were here only to drive your older sister crazy”.

To be honest it had nothing to do with the funeral itself or the thought that a rocket siren could go off at any moment, sending bereaved loved ones scrambling for cover. It was the knowledge that at the same time, news had yet to be published that there were another 13 funerals of soldiers to be held in the coming days, and now we know, another 18 as well.

None of them will be the last either.

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