Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Dear Readers,

This is a revised and expanded post from several weeks ago. I would appreciate a few minutes of your time.
Thank you in advance.

“These Are the Precepts … Escorting the Dead”[1]

We stood at the edge inches from the void’s cold depth, a
terrifying finality beyond which there is neither earthly appeal
nor redress. Our eyes dare not glimpse the depth of the void.
Nearby awaits a mound of dirt, a reminder of the temporal
nature of the void. Mourners wait patiently to grasp the
shovel. While some onlookers may think it a morbid custom,
tradition regards it as a mitzvah
[2] to bury the dead, an expression
of love to be performed b’ chesed.

We swayed at the edge with our arms linked together in the hope we might strengthen each other. I don’t remember if we provided any chairs for the mourners. Just beyond the innermost arc of mourners, a throng gathered as it had at the funeral home, a measure of the many lives Ben touched.

Turning away to leave is both an end and a beginning. His essence accompanies us in our hearts. Though we may feel his presence, we can neither touch him nor he us. The soulless body occupies the void of the grave into which loving kindness returns the mound of earth.[4]

When a Jew dies, our tradition regards it as a genuine kindness to

assist in his burial and the last act of decency any of us can do for the

deceased. He may have been the simplest of Jews, an ordinary man and

perhaps 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 the same

kindness we will want others to do for us when comes our last day.

Examine his deeds and weigh them on the scale of good deeds and

transgressions. If he lived his life like most of us have, there probably will

be an approximate equilibrium between his acts of goodness and

those found wanting. What if-once the scales are still-there is an

exact balance, neither the good deeds nor the bad exceeding the other?

He spoke kind words to comfort the bereaved or he served innumerable

hours as a volunteer at the hospital. How many patients might he have

enabled to feel better by a smile or a few words of encouragement? Or

perhaps he attended prayer services regularly, the much sought after

tenth man to make a minyan.
[5] Yet, mortal being he was, for every

positive, a negative cancelled it out-not the effect of the good deed itself,

but its impact on the count. If we could perform but one more

meritorious deed to tip the balance of the scales in his favor, shouldn’t

we do that for him? We should and can, but how?

We escort him to his final resting place.
[6] By so doing, we invoke His

abundant mercy. Friends and family gather in an act of remembrance,

putting aside any and all controversies while focusing on the positive. Is

there a Jew about whom there cannot be remembered any good?

We gather at the graveside to say the Mourner’s Kaddish
[7] in his

memory just as he enabled others before him to do the same. We recite

psalms 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. Yes, I suppose it would be better if we could gather for

joyous occasions only, a birth more preferable than a burial, but we

must tend to life at both ends.

The other day, a long-time friend of my synagogue passed away. He

had been very ill for quite a while and his dire physical condition was

exacerbated by a host of family problems. In the time between his

death and burial, there was some reasonable doubt there might not be

enough mourners at the graveside service to say the Mourner’s Kaddish

for which a minyan is required. Thankfully, there were, but he seemed to

be a marginalized individual about whom there was some reasonable


As a precaution against this unfortunate possibility, I joined with

several members of my synagogue to attend the funeral . I had the

time, I was available, but beyond these simple facts, I believe it

incumbent on the living to provide or assist in the provision of a

decent Jewish burial both as a debt and a true act of kindness we owe

the deceased. No Jew should suffer the tragedy of dying alone or, as

Rabbi Louis says, the indignity of one’s body being treated shabbily.

The funeral procession lined up. We took our place. A modest

gathering of thirty mourners assembled at the graveside service. Once

there, it became quickly apparent that well over half the original number

of mourners who had attended the chapel service left after its conclusion.

It was an inclement day, a slushy mixture of rain and snow. A tent

over the gravesite was erected. Together with Rabbi Louis, his sons, and

two other men-one of whom had been 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.

“Rabbi, where is the dirt?” I wondered aloud but not loudly.

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

Typically the mound of dirt sits atop a few sheets of plywood close to the

edge of the grave but opposite where the mourners are seated. Stepping

out from under the tent, Rabbi Louis looked about, but couldn’t spot it.

Though the several rows of mourners obscured our view, we were

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. With that it became readily

apparent there would not be a full closure of the grave by the mourners.

In its place, the funeral director had provided two buckets of sand with

garden trowels thrust inside. Before their final goodbyes, some mourners

took hold of a trowel, thrust it into the bucket and tossed the sand atop

the casket. When the last of the mourners finished, the funeral director-

having already earlier informed them about when and where they could

make condolence calls-concluded the service..

Rabbi Louis approached him.

“Would you mind if we filled the grave?

He was a friend of ours,” petitioned Rabbi who, when a situation requires

delicacy, is the consummate diplomat.

“Not at all! Fine. Please,” blurted out the young funeral director who

seemed not to have anticipated any such request.

The mound of dirt? We hadn’t noticed earlier, but there it sat in

the back of a cemetery flatbed about thirty feet from the tent. The funeral

director called the driver who then proceeded to inch the flatbed clumsily

in reverse toward the grave. With the bed elevated, the dirt slid out onto

the plywood into a heap. Grabbing five shovels, one for each of us, we

began the act of kindness 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 casket. The damp, dark finality of

burial is a difficult reality, isn’t it? No longer an issue of the pain and

suffering of the departed, it becomes a reflection of our anguish.

Is it less painful for mourners if they leave after the casket has been

lowered? Is it better to leave the closure of the grave to the cemetery

workers? Like the old saying: “Out of sight. Out of mind!” On the other

hand, it seems so evasive, impersonal and undignified.

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 take it upon ourselves to blanket the casket with earth

until the grave has been entirely refilled. And who better to do this than

those who knew and loved the departed? The effect of that act benefits us

too. We experience genuine closure when we refill the grave.

May all Jewish mourners recognize it as an act of loving-kindness.

After all, do we not owe the departed at least that much?

Alan D. Busch
Copyright @2007

[1] Excerpted from Talmud
[2] Commandment; a good deed
[3] “with kindness.” Jewish tradition regards the burying of the dead as an obligation. It is my view that it be done as gently as if one were carrying a baby.
[4] Excerpted from In Memory of Ben
[5] A minimum of ten Jewish men required for a prayer quorem.
[6] The Talmud, the “Oral Torah” provides for this as an act for which benefit will accrue in the World to Come.
[7] A declaration of faith recited by mourners after burial to offset succumbing to apostasy.

No comments: