The Rituals of Death

Plain, pine box. Earth to earth, dust to dust. Returning to our origins.

Righteous volunteers sit with the body between death and burial. The soul, caught in transition, cannot rest until the body has been laid to rest. It should not be alone.

We share favorite stories and then ride slowly over the roads to the cemetery, one of the most peaceful places on earth, and lower the box into the ground, reciting ancient Hebrew to accompany the journey.

My cousins and I lift the heavy box and carry it toward the grave, where it is lowered, slowly, by the strength of four men, into the earth.

Finally, we shovel dirt onto the box, hear of hard crumbles of earth hitting the box.

And then, we return to a familiar house, where people can visit and give us hugs and love and say I’m sorry for your loss and eat and eat and eat.

Thankfully, I haven’t had much experience with these details, until this past week. The rites of mourning are incredible in my faith, and probably in all faiths. To take us through this final farewell, to give us the comfort that our loved one is at peace, is a tall task. Emotions swirl around and within us as we try to cope with the notion that someone dear has gone forever.

It is not an easy journey.

Friday after the funeral, my head pulsed with a headache that worsened as the night wore on. I fell into bed at 7:30, more exhausted than if I had run a marathon. Saying goodbye is not easy.

But I am thankful for the opportunity to do so. I am glad my tradition forces me through these rites and steps so that we can feel we completely helped my grandmother to rest, and that we comforted one another as fully as possible.

All week, my sister and I have made sure that our mother could simply sit and rest and not have to worry about doing dishes or entertaining people or organizing or cleaning or anything. It has been a supreme honor to do that – to make sure her time of mourning is complete.

I have also been comforted by having my cousins all around, the seven of us who grew up together and probably wouldn’t know ourselves without the context of the rest of them. They are all incredible people, and it makes me smile to see where I come from.

When you grow up with the support of a big, loving family, even though at times it may drive you crazy, you grow up strong and confident and secure in the knowledge that many people have your back. Even if you’re the odd woman out, like me.

When my cousins gather together, and I see our children run off to play as if no time as passed since the last time they saw each other, which was long, long ago, I remember that there are people in the world who live in my heart.

This week, I have had a string of existential conversations in my head. What is the meaning of life? Why do we live in the first place? It can’t be that we live once and never again? So much effort for so little time!

Even more, I’ve wondered about the pace I’ve been keeping – running, running, running between work and school and obligations and so many to-dos on my daily calendar. Why? Seriously?

Someone mentioned that my grandmother, when her children were young, volunteered a lot – synagogue, community, school – she was busy every day.

But each morning, she rose and showered and dressed before the children awoke. She made a hot breakfast, that was waiting for them on the table when they came downstairs before school.

And every night, when they returned home, Monday through Friday, they sat down to a home-cooked dinner with the whole family around the table.

My grandmother never seemed rushed or frazzled, I don’t remember ever seeing her stressed-out. In fact, she used to say to me, “You do too much!” I’d scoff at the comment and just think, it’s a family member telling me what to do. I never really listened to the message or asked her how she handled it all, how she juggled so many things.

Now, it’s a wake-up call to rethink the pace at which I’ve been running and find a new way, a calmer way, a sane way to do all the things we do. After all, I am 42 – who knows how long we all have to live. Do we want our lives to be about work, work, work, run, run, run, or something way more meaningful?

I don’t have the answers yet, just the questions. My grandmother made time for people. I’ve been making time for tasks.

She visited with friends, attended every moment of my life and the lives of my cousins – big and small. She volunteered, she had a social life, she launched a career as a court reporter during my childhood and sometimes brought home work on the weekends or evenings. She did it all, with grace.

People were her focus. She was there for us and for others, she made and nurtured lifelong relationships. That’s what a life is about. Not the tasks. The depth of conversation and caring.

 

If I can take anything away from her passing, I hope it will be a renewed focus on what is truly important and less of a focus on what is not. Priority-setting, with Grandma’s watchful eye overhead.

She may be at peace. But she will reside forever in my heart and in my head, her voice as familiar as the morning sun.

  2 comments for “The Rituals of Death

  1. Beverly Chayet
    December 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Lynne, Your grandmother was a fortunate woman to have a loving family surround her all of her life and you are all blessed to have had her.
    Love, Aunt Bev

  2. Linda Golden
    December 2, 2013 at 7:46 am

    This is an incredibly moving article. You are a gifted writer and although this is your story, it is the story of everyone lucky enough to have strong, loving family connections.

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