Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dust to Dust

Here are some thoughts I recorded after my mother-in-law Minna Greenberg's funeral on Friday, April 22, 2011.

We buried my mother-in-law today. Mom was a good woman who lived a life of comfort on her own terms. She was wonderful to the people she liked, but could be cold to those she didn't. I consider myself lucky that she was always very good to me. It could have gone the other way. As far as we could tell, she suffered little during her decline and the end was mercifully sudden and swift.

When I say we buried her today, I mean that quite literally. The customs of Judaism concerning death and dying always resonated with me. Upon death the body is buried as quickly as possible - ideally within 24 hours. There is no embalming. A simple pine box with no metal fasteners or adornments is used - dust to dust with no steel or concrete in the way.

After a brief chapel service that included moving personal remarks by my wife, daughter and nephew six of us, including her grandson - my son, lifted her onto our shoulders and carried her to the hearse. At the cemetery, we carried her from the road to the grave and four of us lowered her into the ground with cloth straps.

After a few more remarks by the rabbi we began the task of returning Minna to the earth. Slowly, reluctantly at first, using the back of the shovel, we took turns filling the grave. At first, the soil thudded on the wooden box, but soon the sound was more muffled. A rabbi once taught that the soil filling a grave was much like the life that it was covering - some of it easy and soft like sand, some of it hard like the rocks that are always found in New England dirt. We like to think that Minna's life was mostly like the sand.

Several family members took turns throwing in the first ceremonial shovels-full, but after a while a few of us men finished the chore of filling the grave. It turns out this is real work. It takes a lot of dirt to fill a grave. I sensed that we all wanted to do the job well - a final gesture of thanks to a woman who loved us all. My nephews who know so much about these things supervised and directed our efforts; making sure we filled the grave uniformly, leaving no voids. We tried to work quickly and efficiently so as not to prolong the task, but with a respectful lack of eagerness to see it finished.

In a world full of hype, buzz, glitz, exaggeration and hyperbole, this simple ritual serves as a reminder that death for all of us is a simple reality. In the end, we are all the same. We take nothing with us and all we leave behind is the love of those who knew us. Life is real, and so is death. It is love that transcends those realities and makes us human.

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