By Holly Blue Hawkins
© 15 March 2021
The Rabbi’s voice rang out, singing the words of the 18th century sage Rebbe Nachman, above the wailing of mourners guiding the pallbearers. “All the world is just a narrow bridge….” We paused seven times along the way as if to say, “We don’t want to do this,” then resolutely moved on to fulfill the divine decree “you shall surely bury.” The open grave with mounds of dirt piled to either side seem like earthen wings spread wide to gather this one back into the nest. The opening is hand-carved with care, its floor gently arched to the center so that the lowering straps can be gracefully removed.
Within the simple, kosher casket lies a body that has been prayed over, bathed, ceremonially purified with flowing water and guarded. “You are a garden spring, a well of fresh water, a rill of Lebanon….” It has been dressed in the simple, white garments of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, casketed with the utmost care, enveloped in a shroud of natural fiber and (if it was their custom) wrapped in a prayer shawl.
The garments, woven of cotton or linen, have no pockets, or fasteners other than cloth sashes that are ceremonially tied with slip knots in a manner representing one of the holy names. Soil from Israel is placed within the casket, touching the skin of the deceased as if to guide the way home, and holes have been drilled in the floor to welcome the natural process to occur without delay. “The Holy One will guide you always. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail….”
There is a sound that, once you have heard it, you will never forget. It is begun by the chief mourners: spouse, parents, children, siblings. It is the belly-deep resonance of earth thumping against the lid of a coffin. Like a glass being crushed beneath the heel of a newlywed, it proclaims, “This has happened and there is no turning back time.”
It is a mitzvah, a holy act, to bury our dead, but not one we do eagerly. I do not hand the shovel to you, you do not hand it to me. Each of us pulls it from the mound of earth waiting to be returned to the open grave, and then returns the shovel to the waiting mound, for those who follow to complete their own regretful act of love and care. We may well turn the spade upside down, fulfilling the mitzvah, but taking less than a full shovel-load. I may decide to use my hands instead, to feel the earth encroaching between my fingers, perhaps imagining it reclaiming the remains of this beloved we are burying as a community.
This is kavod hameit, respecting the body of the deceased. As we leave the cemetery we ceremonially wash our hands and return to the role of caring for the living.
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