Nina B. Mogilnik

When Death is Not Just a Separation from Life

Years ago, I was in Israel when I got the awful news that a friend’s husband had taken his life. Actually, I was in Jordan at the time, with my eldest son and my Israeli cousin’s younger son. We flew back to Israel and I tried in vain, with my cousin’s help, to find the kibbutz cemetery in which he was to be buried.  So we missed the funeral, but did make it to shiva.

Years before that, I wrote a letter to The Jewish Week expressing my dismay and anger about a story involving a Russian Israeli soldier, killed in the line of duty, who was refused burial in a Jewish cemetery because he wasn’t considered halakhically Jewish. He was Jewish enough to die for Israel as a soldier, but insufficiently Jewish to merit inclusion among his fallen comrades in a Jewish cemetery.

Fast forward to just this week.  In The Times of Israel, this headline:  Reservist with PTSD kills himself after callup order; family pleads for military burial.  Eliran Mizrahi was deemed ineligible for burial in an army cemetery because he wasn’t on active duty.  The six months he served in Gaza, which his mother said returned him home a “broken man” did not count for enough, it seems.  He was called up again and the implication is that this triggered his suicide.

What do all these stories have in common?  They involve Jewish burial gatekeeping.  Now I know that Judaism and halakha are deeply intertwined.  Without laws, rules, standards, we would just be bagel- or pita- or laffeh-loving individuals who call ourselves Jews.  But are we not above all supposed to be a people of love, of compassion, of infinite commitment to mercy, to justice?  If we are those people, then what to make of the stories above, each true and each, at least in my reading, deeply disturbing and frankly, infuriating.

Death separates us from life, from the living world in which we were loved, and in which we hopefully loved in return; in which we laughed, struggled, fought, strived, cried, succeeded, failed, pursued our dreams, and wrestled with our demons.  In death, it might not matter where you are interred and why, especially if you don’t believe that there is any kind of life after death.  But for the living who mourn your loss, burial is not a neutral thing.  It is a way to pay respect, to honor, to grieve, to share that grief, and to receive consolation.

If however, the grieving and mourning of the living become instead a fight for the honor and dignity of the dead in the face of rules and rankings made in some antiseptic assessment of qualifications, then we have dishonored the dead.  Our motives might be fidelity to rules and laws, but those things cannot–must not–take precedence over the human desire of survivors to honor those whom they loved in life, whom they lost to military battle, to personal struggle, or to some combination of these or other factors.

Or let’s just flip things and ask ourselves why philanderers, liars, cheats, thieves, and all other sorts can be buried without hesitation in a civilian or military cemetery, but those who have lived honorably, and died in service of their country, are segregated in death from those they felt most aligned with–whether family, or brothers and sisters in arms.

About the Author
Nina has a long history of working in the non-profit, philanthropic, and government sectors. She has also been an opinion writer for The Jewish Week, and a contributor to The Forward, and to The New Normal, a disabilities-focused blog. However, Nina is most proud of her role as a parent to three unique young adults, and two rescue dogs, whom she co-parents with her wiser, better half. She blogs about that experience now and again at
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