Burying Mom

Burying Mom

It’s hard for me to think of things I don’t like about being an Orthodox Jew, but until mom died, I had a biggie. I didn’t tell anybody, really, because sharing the thing I really didn’t like about Judaism would have been as taboo as saying “I’m Orthodox but I love bacon,” or “I’m Orthodox but I love attending mass.”
My confession (if it would have ever taken place) would have been, “I’m Orthodox, but I don’t want to be buried when I die, I’d rather be cremated instead.”
The idea of being buried deep underground triggered within me panicky claustrophobia. Yes, I know I’d be dead when I’m buried. And dead people, by definition, don’t feel claustrophobic (or anything). But still…
Attending mom’s burial changed that.
The story of my mom’s burial actually started around a year before it took place, during my mom’s final visit to Israel to spend Succot with my family. While on a Chol HaMoed outing to a playground with my parents and younger kids, I noticed a large Charedi family, grandparents from abroad enjoying a nachas-filled visit with their married children and many grandchildren.
At one point, one of the married children called out, “Hi, Chana Jenny!” It turned out to be Brachie Miller, with whom I share a close friend in common.
Which led to her parents, Rabbi and Mrs. Rosenbaum from Baltimore, meeting my parents, Matthew and Gladys Freedman, from Baltimore. And they had a conversation about living in Baltimore and Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, where Rabbi Rosenbaum teaches, and which my parents had never seen, but were curious to hear more about.
A year and a bit later, my mom passed away. And I received an Email from Brachie.
It turned out that Brachie’s mom, Mrs. Rosenbaum, was a volunteer with the Chevra Kadisha. And when she heard my mom had passed away, she said she would be happy to participate in her tahara, the washing and purification process preceding burial.
A few weeks before mom died, I had read a series of personal reflections written by women who are chevra kadisha volunteers, and I was deeply moved by their descriptions of the holiness and solemnity of the tahara process, performed with such love and even awe for the deceased. I knew I wanted that for mom too.
But when I suggested this to my Dad, he responded with: “What is a tahara?” So I explained a little and then I said, “And remember that nice woman from Baltimore we met last year at the playground? She said she had fond memories of meeting mom, and she would be happy to participate in her tahara.”
So that’s how a meeting at a playground in Israel ended up getting mom a Chevra Kadisha tahara in Baltimore.
When I got to the funeral home at 9:30 that Sunday morning, there were a bunch of Orthodox women there. I was wondering how these women knew my mom. But then one of them approached me and introduced herself as Brachie’s mom. With gentleness and sensitivity, she tore kriya with me. She and 6 other volunteers had arrived at the funeral home at 7:30 AM on a Sunday morning to perform the tahara for a woman all but one of them had never met.
And that was just the first step of an outpouring of chesed from the women (and especially the JewishMOMs) of Baltimore which left me feeling so cared for, so supported, so embraced throughout the shiva, even though I was thousands of miles from home.
But back to the burial. And why I don’t want to be cremated anymore.
At the cemetery, my mother’s beloved long-time rabbi, Rabbi Daniel Burg of Beth Am, invited each of us there to shovel dirt into the grave to bury mom. Having seen this at funerals, it always struck me, instinctively, as a strangely vindictive act. You could imagine a person saying: “I hate you so much, I’m going to bury you!” but “I love you so much, I’m going to bury you”–not so much.
But Rabbi Burg reframed the burial very powerfully for me, reminding me that burying the dead is known as “Chesed Shel Emet”: True Kindness, because this is a kindness its recipient can never ever repay. For all of our lives, Rabbi Burg pointed out, mom had performed countless acts of kindness for each of us. And this was our chance to finally perform this ultimate act of kindness for her, a kindness performed completely for its own sake, knowing mom would never be able to pay us back.
So as I placed 3 shovels-full of dirt into her grave, I whispered silently, “Mom, thank you for everything you gave me, since the day I was born. You gave me life. And you always supported me, no matter what. I can never repay everything you did for me. And now I am doing this final kindness for you.”
Experiencing these traditions 1st hand, rather than seeing another person going through them, enabled me to see the sensitivity, the humaneness, the beauty even, of a Jewish burial. And to realize that this is what I want for myself also, when the time comes.

5 comments

  1. So touching. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Chana Jenny, i appreciate very much the honesty combined with dignity in the way you write

    you share but you don’t over-share

    you are honest but you keep your dignity and that of your family members

    May Hashem comfort you amongst the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim

    love,
    rishe

  3. Dear Jenny,
    I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my mom 6 yrs ago, and I still miss her every day, we were very close. I understand;I could not bring myself to shovel dirt in, it was just too painful for me to do that. Maybe that act just makes the reality of it all just hit home, so final.
    May Hashem comfort you …your mom sounds like an amazing woman.

  4. robin hollander goldstein

    I am so very sorry for the loss of your mom. The loss, at times, must be unbearable. Thank you for a sad, but uplifting post. May you and your family, eventually, find solace with your memories.May her memory abide as a blessing and may she forever rest in peace.

  5. Leah Haziza

    you should live more than 120

    such a zechut! on both sides! sending you a BIG hug…you are also comforting me!

Leave a Reply