Why I founded Hesped

Someone has died. A blank piece of paper. It is very late. If you are a close family member or friend you are exhausted, shocked, grieving. You might be a rabbi or cantor who has visited the newly bereaved to console and gather some history about their loved one. The funeral is tomorrow and there is a eulogy(hesped) to write.

This is a unique moment, and you carry a significant responsibility to try and encapsulate the essence of a person in a speech lasting just a few minutes. In most circumstances a hesped needs to be crafted to honour their life, and the good they brought to the world, to encourage the listeners to consider their own legacies, and as the Talmud and subsequent halachic commentaries suggest (Shulchan Orech, Yoreh De’ah 344:1) they should also aim to make the mourners feel the pain of their loss and offer some comfort too. 

I have heard countless hespedim delivered at funerals, shivas and stone settings, and have always been struck by the way the mourners, or officiating clergy, manage to fulfil this weighty obligation(mitzvah) of delivering a eulogy with dignity and composure, and even raise a smile. Sometimes hespedim are simple, but often and surprisingly in the most difficult of circumstances, they are powerful and moving.

I have written two hespedim myself, for my parents who died within eight months of each other in 2013.My relationship with my father was complicated. In his later years I had wondered what I might feel when he was no longer here and how I would face the task of writing his eulogy. But as I sat at his hospital bedside during his final days, I found the more difficult feelings began to fade.

Hespedim are different from obituaries. They are written in the raw time following a death, and say more about a person’s inner character and qualities than a mere curriculam vitae of what they did. Not all lives are deemed to merit an obituary in a national newspaper although every life tells a story. There are many nuances in eulogies, but I believe the writers of all these tributes seek to create the most fair, rounded, respectful and loving portrait of the person they have lost. This can be challenging, but I learned that at the end of a life we realise what really matters.

Over a number of years I had a growing sense that we should preserve these precious pieces of writing which tell the stories of people’s lives, capturing the intrinsic nature of each person. So I set out to create a treasury of hespedim which were delivered at Jewish funerals and in the following days in the homes of mourners. I decided to build this in the form of a website so that the collection could grow over time and would be accessible to all. I worked with a talented group of professionals to develop what I hope is an elegant and uplifting website, a fitting place for these personal memorials.

I am fascinated by all these stories and hope that as well as holding the hespedim of those close to your own heart, you will find many other interesting and inspiring people to meet in the collection. I hope that this archive will become an important addition to the cultural and social history of our Jewish community, and will illuminate the part we have played in British society and beyond. As a child of two refugee parents I am acutely aware that there are many people who started their lives somewhere else and for a variety of reasons made their homes here in the UK. Their eulogies tell of their journeys and the big and small contributions they have made to their adoptive home.

My father wrote books about his own life and what became of the Jews of his home town of Bamberg. He was a passionate genealogist, constructing a huge family tree and researching the many branches of his family. His Masters and Doctorate studies involved the economic contribution of refugees to industries in the North of England. After a long career as an engineer, an entrepreneur and industrialist my father became an archivist of sorts and now I find that I have inadvertently followed in his footsteps, ensuring that we hold on to the eulogies which tell the stories of ordinary and extraordinary lives. I think he would have approved of this project, and might even have given his blessing.

If you would like to get in touch with me (our email address is contact@hesped.org) I would be delighted to hear from you.