Tonight, for the first time, my husband and I made a long, dark drive to a cemetery. We remarked how amazing it was that in nearly ten years we have not yet attended a funeral. We’ve paid shiva visits to support friends after a death and attended funerals in the US. But here, not yet.
We drove a dark road searching for where to turn off so as to arrive at the red map point off the side of the road, also in darkness on our GPS. Arriving at a gas station up ahead there was a sign indicating the cemetery. As we pulled into the gas station my mind wandered to the fact that really good restaurants were located at gas stations but that just didn’t reconcile tonight. We were there to support our friend who had lost his mother well before her time.
After gathering and waiting, not really knowing what to expect at an Israeli funeral, here on this hillside above a gas station, she arrived. A darkened ambulance pulled up and backed in. No lights on, in no hurry to save a life. I knew there would be no coffin. She’d be buried in a simple shroud. The doors of the ambulance opened and she lay on a stretcher, covered in a bordeaux velvet blanket with gold embroidery. I didn’t get close, that wasn’t my place, and funerals aren’t a time for curiosity, at least not the pushy and overt kind to get a closer look. From a distance her covered body reminded me of a Torah, covered with an embroidered parochet in honor or memory of someone dear to the community.
Her loved ones honored her memory in a language I once knew but tonight could not remember but a few spare words. Their pain was clear and moving. Tears came to my eyes as I mourned with them, not for the loss of her soul, but rather for the hole now in their lives and their agony of having lost her. I was there to support my friend; their pain was moving.
We walked the short distance to where her grave had been prepared. It was here that the colorful, decorative cover was removed and for the first time we saw the burial shroud and the way it molded to her body.
She was lowered carefully, yet perfunctorily, into her final resting place. Heavy stones were placed over her shrouded body beginning at her head. For each stone there was just enough room for the grave digger to maneuver in the space with her body, until he got to the final stone. I couldn’t see clearly, but yet it was clear to me. When it came time to place the final stone, he had to ascend up onto her now stone covered body. The final stone in place, he was helped out of the grave and the workers covered her with the freshly turned earth.
Her sons were denied the final opportunity to honor their mother by placing some earth on her grave. Not a symbolic upside down shovelful of dirt or even a handful. This ritual act, for mourners not allowed to work, as a final tribute and service to their loved one has always struck me as a meaningful part of funerals. Apparently here, that is not allowed. The rabbi officiating continued in his perfunctory tone, asking for forgiveness if he or the others had unintentionally harmed her soul in any way during the burial. As every line that had previously come out of his mouth it was in the same bored monotone of someone here to complete a task who clearly knew nothing of the deceased or the mourners.
What if you have harmed the mourners? You didn’t ask for their forgiveness. Surely this unfeeling funeral “service” has harmed them and perhaps her soul if it is lingering around, I thought to myself. Sure, we want to conduct a funeral promptly after someone passes, to allow the mourners to quickly transition from the shock of the loss to the period of shiva so they can begin the process of healing. Shouldn’t this moment be critical, pivotal, in the beginning of this healing process? The cursory nature of his officiating this major life event left me unsettled.
And with that the funeral was over. It was late and dark, after all, and many of us had long drives home. We walked to wash our hands and disperse. The rabbi was the first one and then he stepped off to the side to have a cigarette, a most bizarre sight to see.
The eastern winds are strong this time of the year. Desert winds rip through the country bringing with them heat and dryness. The winds woke me in the middle of the night and stirred my restlessness. I could only think that mingled with these winds was her soul, slowly finding its way but yet perhaps not fully yet ready to depart. Maybe, just maybe, it’s going to take a little bit of time for that unintended pain to pass.