Friday, April 13, 2007

Elu devarim … ulvayas ha mes[1]

When a Jew dies, it is a genuine kindness to assist in his burial-the last act of decency anyone of us can do. He can be the simplest of Jews, an ordinary man and maybe not the most outwardly pious, but who among us can peer into the heart of man, of this man, of any man?

When a Jew dies, we have an opportunity to do for him that which we would want others to do for us when our last day comes. When we examine his deeds, we are sure to find that he did many kindnesses in his day: perhaps he was known for his kind words, his volunteer work at the hospital … how many patients might he have helped to feel better by a smile or a few kind words of encouragement? Or perhaps he was a habitual minyon man, the much sought after tsenter?[2]

We gather at the graveside to say Kaddish[3] for this Jew just as he enabled others before him to do the same. We say tehilim[4] so that his soul ascends and from which we too are invariably reminded that his life, our lives are as blades of grass, fragile and fleeting.

We escort him to his final resting place. His passing brings forth His abundant mercy. Friends and family gather in an act of remembrance, putting any and all controversy aside while focusing on the positive. Is there a Jew about whom there cannot be remembered any good?

Yes, I suppose it would be better if we gathered only for smachot[5], that a bris[6] is much preferable to a burial, but we must tend to life at both ends.

The other day, a long-time friend of my shul passed away. He had been very sickly for quite a while, and his physical condition was worsened by a variety of family problems. There was some reasonable concern that, given the horendous weather of the morning, there might not be a minyan at the graveside service. Thankfully, as it happened, there was, but he seemed to be a marginalized individual about whom there could be some reasonable doubt.

I joined with several members of our shul to attend the funeral and make the minyon should that have become necessary. I had the time, I was available, but well beyond these simple facts, I very much believe in the obligatory nature of Jewish burial as a chesed shel emes[7]-that no Jew should suffer the tragedy of dying alone, as Rabbi Louis says, or the indignity of one's body being treated shabbily in death.

We arrived at the graveside. A moderate gathering of thirty mourners assembled though it was very apparent that well over half had left after the chapel service ended.

It was an inclement day. A tent over the grave site had been erected as the weather was a slushy mixture of rain and snow. Together with Rabbi Louis, his sons, and two other men-one of whom was a good friend of the deceased-we stood at the back of the tent while the family and close friends gathered closer to the edge to witness the lowering of the casket.

Something though did not seem right. Turning to Rabbi Louis, I wondered:

“Rabbi, where is the dirt?”

Typically the mound of dirt sits atop a few sheets of plywood close to the edge of the grave but on the opposite side from where the mourners are seated.

“I don’t know,” he responded looking somewhat perplexed.

He looked about in and out of the tent but couldn’t spot it. Though the several rows of mourners obscured our view we were reasonably certain the dirt, wherever it might be, was not inside the tent.

When the sarcophagus was secured, the funeral director invited the mourners, should they wish to participate, to sprinkle a few particles of earth from the Holy Land into the grave.

As I suspected, there was not to be a full closure of the grave by the mourners as is customary. In its place, there were two buckets of sand with hand garden shovels thrust inside. Before their final goodbyes, some mourners took hold of the hand shovel, thrust it into the bucket and tossed the sand atop the aron. At the very most, this act though well-intended, seemed a pitiably weak gesture of kindness. When the last mourner finished, the funeral director, having already informed the mourners about the time and place of shiva[8], directed folks back to their cars.

Rabbi Louis approached him.

“Would you mind if we filled the grave? He was a friend of ours,” intoned Rabbi Louis who, when a situation required diplomacy, was quite the diplomat.

“No. Fine. Please,” blurted out the young funeral director who, it seemed, hid rather well the tiniest bit of embarrassment that he should have taken care of this matter with the family of the deceased.

Now came the hard part. How to fill the grave when there was no mound of dirt! We hadn’t noticed, but there it sat heaped into the back of a cemetery flat truck about thirty feet from the tent. The flatbed, attached to a tractor shovel, inched the mound toward the grave and dropped its load. Grabbing five shovels, one for each of us, we began the chesed[9] we felt we owed the departed.

All in all, it took us about twenty minutes. It just feels so right, an easy choice to make when you consider the alternative of having the heap dumped ignominiously onto the aron from the flatbed.

It happens all too often.

Why do we walk away from the grave? A loved one lies therein. The damp, dark finality of burial … it is a difficult reality, isn’t it? For the mes[10], no longer an issue of his pain, his suffering, it becomes rather one of our anguish.

Would it be better if we left the closure of the grave to the cemetery workers? Like the old saying: “Out of sight. Out of mind!” Is it somehow better, perhaps less painful if mourners leave after the casket has been lowered and allow the balance of the open grave to be filled in from the back of the cemetery truck as if pouring a concrete foundation. It’s no wonder so many mourners leave before the grave is filled? Who could bare to witness such an indignity?

What more can we do? What one last gesture can we make that says: “Thank you” or “We love you”? How does one extend a hand to another who cannot reciprocate? How do we hug him who cannot hug us back?

The answer is we blanket him with earth until the void is filled to the top. And who better to do this than those who knew and loved him? The effect of that act benefits us too. We experience genuine closure , I think, when we assist in closing the grave. It isn’t enough to sprinkle a few specks of soil from the Holy Land or toss in a few handfuls of sand from a bucket.

Let all Jewish mourners stay and witness the process whereby the work of refilling the grave becomes a mitzvah[11] infused with loving-kindness.

After all, is not the mes[12] owed at least that much?

Alan D. Busch
Copyright @2007

[1] Taken from the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book: “These are the precepts … escorting the dead.”
[2] Yiddish: the tenth man to make a minyan, a prayer quorem.
[3] Prayer reaffirming life
[4] Psalms of King David
[5] Hebrew: joyous occasions
[6] Hebrew: covenant. Ritual circumcision performed on the eighth day.
[7] An act of true kindness
[8] the first seven days of mourning
[9] An act of kindness
[10] The deceased.
[11] Yiddish: a good deed. Hebrew: commandment
[12] the deceased


frumhouse said...

It is a beautiful custom to "bury our own." Much nicer than standing by and watching as the cemetary workers cover the body with earth and put it to rest.

My husband took my 3rd grade son to the levayah of his rebbe's mother. His rebbe was very touched that he came. None of the other parents brought their kids (his students). In fact, due to the timing of yom tov, no other parents showed up. My husband was surprised and a bit saddened. The school sent out no calling post notification. I suppose people were out of town.

Some family members seemed shocked that we would bring a child to a funeral (he did not go to the cemetary). However, we felt it was important lesson for him to learn. Coming to pay respects for a loved one, or a loved one of a loved one, is a mitzvah.

Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear Frumhouse,

Thank you for your thoughtful responses.