Like most large Jewish families, the extended Klein clan can go months without an organized family gathering. For the most part, it is the unbridled joy of a wedding or the crushing sorrow of a funeral that brings us all together.
Unfortunately, we have been meeting more frequently at the Eretz HaChaim cemetery just outside of Bet Shemesh over the last few years than anywhere else.
Last month, we returned to those hallowed grounds to lay yet another member of our family to rest. Most disturbing was the fact that we had convened just a few months earlier for a similarly tragic send-off (the two were brothers-in-law, both brilliant and extraordinarily kind family men in their 60s claimed by disease), and we were all wracked with grief, struggling to make sense of the situation.
Burial, it seems, is the only process that does not get easier for those who are well-practiced.
Rather than plunging into depressive thought, I tried to focus on the warmth of the crowd that had gathered that Friday afternoon, the raw beauty of the hastily-prepared eulogies, and the holy complexity of the burial process itself. At this point, I have lost count of the number of funerals I have attended, but I do know that I have learned (or intuited) something new every time, and have grown as a person from each experience.
This time was no exception, and my observations led me to my most profound discovery yet.
As we approached the burial plot in the blazing Bet Shemesh sun, we were met with a familiar sight: a man-sized hole accompanied by a giant mound of dirt. After the body was respectfully laid to rest at the bottom of the manmade chasm, everyone present took turns completing the burial process, fastidiously shoveling the dirt from the pile back to its proper place, simultaneously sending the deceased back to the dust from whence he came with every scoop.
After we had done our part, my father and I stood off to the side, watching as others said their final “goodbyes” one shovelful at a time. When the task was completed, the burial crew – the most unlikely band of heroes you would ever meet – scurried to surround the plot with bricks and erect the makeshift name marker.
As they launched into a loud, heartfelt prayer, beseeching the deceased for his forgiveness for any incidental mistreatment of his body during the burial process (an awe-inspiring show of modesty, righteousness and brotherly love), I noticed that a large pile of dirt still remained. In fact, it seemed as though we hadn’t even made a dent by filling in the hole.
That’s when it hit me.
Though I had witnessed this very phenomenon at every funeral I attended, I finally understood what it meant. It was a powerful metaphor.
I realized that a person is very much like the grave in which he is laid to rest. When the eulogies begin, we, the living, assume that with a little work, we can adequately define who the deceased was, what he stood for, and why he will be missed. We presume that all of the emotions we dig up to eulogize him will fit neatly into the void left by his passing.
But as family and friends shovel memories, musings and compliments into that void, it quickly becomes evident that the person we remember is, in fact, only one, small dimension of a much larger individual. There is so much more to the people we love than we could ever know.
At the funeral, and throughout the days of mourning that follow, the full picture comes into focus.
A wife learns about her late husband’s weekly trips to the grocery store to buy Shabbat food for needy families across the community – a man she assumed couldn’t make heads or tails of a shopping list.
A son is informed about his mother’s impish behavior as a youth – a straight-laced homebody who chided his wild behavior.
A sister finds out that her late brother, not her parents, paid her college tuition – a man whom she had consistently berated for diving headfirst into a dead-end job right after high school, throwing away his college dreams for “no reason at all.”
A father is regaled with tales of his daughter’s heroism during her service in the IDF – a little girl who used to be afraid of her shadow.
All too often, we only learn who our loved ones truly are when it is too late to tell them how proud and grateful we are for the ways they have impacted our lives and the lives of others, and just how much we love them.
The obvious “take-home message” is that we should make every effort to properly express the appropriate amounts of pride, appreciation and love to cover the things we do know about. We cannot allow ourselves to take the special people in our lives for granted.
The not-so-obvious lesson/call to action is that we need to start sharing the things that make our family members and friends so special with others who will appreciate the “fuller picture.”
Taking this to heart, I am making it my personal mission to share these details with others, whether I am prompted for the information or not.
I will tell the mother about the good deed performed by her son while he thought no one was watching.
I will explain to the daughter why I greatly respect her father.
I will inform the husband of his wife’s kindness and compassion.
I will share these details while there is still time to breathe new life into old relationships. And I encourage you to do the same.