I attended a funeral yesterday for someone very dear in our community. Her death was unexpected, accidental. Her time came too soon. It was a graveside funeral attended by so many. She was such a presence in the community that it’s impossible right now to imagine it without her. She was one of the first people I met here almost two years ago, instantly welcoming. She embraced my children and they loved her right back.
Hers was the third graveside funeral I have attended in my lifetime. The last one was for my baby daughter, Tikva, almost seven years ago. My most vivid imprint from that day was that her coffin was so small that the man from the funeral home carried it in his arms, without the gurney he had brought that is used for larger coffins. The first graveside funeral I went to was in Paris almost 20 years ago when I traveled with my father to be with our family as we buried a patriarch, my beloved great uncle. The other funerals I’ve attended have all been indoors, in a chapel or synagogue or church.
When I was in eighth grade, after a fierce battle with cancer, my grandmother died just a few months before my bat mitzvah. She was a Holocaust survivor and her determination and fight showed in how long she survived with pancreatic cancer. I loved her so much; being in her presence was like being enveloped in love and nurturing. She knit, she crocheted, she cooked, she baked, she hugged. It was April when she died and the grave diggers were on strike, so she wasn’t buried until a few weeks later. My mom didn’t let me go to the cemetery that day, I’m not sure why. She said it was enough that I had been at her service at the funeral home a few weeks before. It didn’t feel like enough to me. Perhaps there is some kind of closure in seeing a loved one’s body lowered into the ground, and something inside me knew I needed that. I had dreams for years afterwards that I carried my grandmother’s coffin around, looking for a place to bury it.
When I was a freshman in high school, a friend took his own life on the train tracks behind the school. I remember the cops thought a homeless person had been killed by the train, because it was 1986 and my friend wore a trench coat and dyed his hair black, and only homeless people wore trench coats, right? I remember the minister at the church service wore a belt buckle that said “BOB.” I think Pink Floyd was played.
I’ve been to two viewings at Catholic funerals, but only entered the room where the deceased lay at one of them. Viewings are unfamiliar to most Jews, whose dead are buried naked except for a muslin shroud and sometimes a prayer shawl, in a simple pine box, and caskets are always closed.
At one point yesterday, close to the end of the service, I moved away from the crowd and looked down the hill, listening to one of the rabbis as he spoke so beautifully. I don’t know what I was thinking about exactly, but it felt as if I were holding all of the deaths I had experienced in the past and all the deaths that awaited in the future in that one present moment. I took a deep breath, then another. Cemeteries have always felt strangely peaceful to me, especially on sunny days. Birds flew overhead, a fuzzy caterpillar walked on the grass and paused for a moment next to a man’s shoe, a turtle swam in the man made lake nearby. At my feet was a headstone for a man named Sol who had died in 2002 at the age of 92. I hope I get at least 92 years.
There is so much I don’t know about what awaits me, but that doesn’t really scare me. It’s kind of freeing to accept all I do not know. I go about my days hoping I will get so many others. Then I stop to pause in moments like these – standing graveside waiting to help shovel dirt over the burial place of a friend – and I think about how precious life is, how finite, how miraculous. In Tikva I learned that some souls do all of the work of an entire lifetime in 58 days, while others need decades. From my friend who was buried yesterday, I am reminded to live fully, to love unconditionally, and to show gratitude for how precious it all is and how lucky I am to be able to take another deep breath of fresh spring air.
Rest in peace, M. I will miss you.