Escorting the Dead
By Alan D. Busch © 2007
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 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 that which we will want others to do for us when comes our last day. If we were to examine his deeds, we would be sure to find the many kindnesses he did in his days: was he well 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 words of encouragement? Or perhaps he attended prayer services regularly, the much sought after tenth man?
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?
We gather at the graveside to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for this Jew 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 gathered only for joyous occasions, that a birth is much preferable to 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 variety of family problems. There was some reasonable doubt there might not be enough mourners at the graveside service. Thankfully, as it happened, there were, but he seemed to be a marginalized individual about whom there could be some reasonable concern.
I joined with several members of my synagogue to attend the funeral as a precaution in the event that too few mourners showed up. I had the time, I was available, but beyond these simple facts, I very much believe in the obligatory nature of Jewish burial as a true act of kindness-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 left after the chapel service had ended. It was an inclement day. A tent over the gravesite 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, appearing 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.
It did not appear as if there would 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 one 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 looked surprised at the request.
Now came the hard part. How to fill the grave when there was no mound of dirt! We hadn’t noticed it, but there it sat in a heap in the back of a cemetery flatbed about thirty feet from the tent. The funeral director instructed the flatbed driver who inched the flatbed clumsily in reverse toward the grave. With the bed elevated, the dirt slid out forming a mound. 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 from the flatbed.
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 impersonal, cold and evasive.
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 him with earth until the grave has been refilled to the top. 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?