My dad’s burial has been on my mind. The whole experience is a very long and meandering story filled with frustration but ultimately ends in Grace, and I’ll summarize as best I can.
We decided on cremation originally. We met with a man named David from a funeral home in Las Vegas who was kind and caring and we couldn’t have asked for a better person to help us with such a task. Did we want a lock of his hair? A thumb print? A picture before cremation?? Really?? We asked questions and filled out all of the paperwork.
As we were leaving, David said, “You guys are like my family. We’re a big family and we care about each other and love each other.” He said that a lot of the families he meets with are angry, yell at each other and him in the meeting room, and ask him to lie about cause of death which is completely out of his hands. My heart goes out to those families.
A couple of days before the scheduled cremation my mom received a phone call from a Rabbi in Las Vegas asking if we would consider burial instead and he’d be willing to cover the cost. What? My dad certainly didn’t know any Rabbis in Vegas. I don’t think he knew any Jewish people there either. I called the Rabbi. Basically, someone in my father’s family in Israel asked everyone he knew for help to bury my dad instead of cremation. They were very concerned that he wouldn’t be buried. So, someone in Israel knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who had a daughter whose child attended the Rabbi’s daycare at his congregation – in Las Vegas! The Rabbi laughed and called it a “Jewish connection.”
To appease the family we halted the cremation. This decision was made lightly. We were now going to need a new death certificate and a new permit for burial. The Rabbi and I went back and forth about details over the next couple of weeks. He required a plot in the Jewish section of a cemetery, which was a lot of work for my sister, and a Jewish casket. He was only available for the service on certain days. And on and on we went.
I was frustrated that this was taking so long. I couldn’t sleep. I felt intense panic in the middle of the night thinking of my dad’s body in some cold storage locker. I know his soul wasn’t there but there were so many details up in the air and it felt like we were all in limbo. Not to mention the thousands of dollars I wound up paying for a burial we didn’t really want while trying to coordinate all of this from afar. I said to the Rabbi, “My dad has been dead for three weeks. What’s the soonest we can do this, please? Please?”
Looking back though, this experience mirrored how my dad lived. Lots of drama, nothing was easy or straightforward, chaos and anxiety for everyone.
It all finally came together about four weeks after my dad died. When I met the Rabbi in person at the cemetery. He said to me:
“Elana, I was with your father this morning [at the funeral home]. Two other men and I bathed him, dressed him in the traditional shrouds, and prayed over him for about an hour. I gave him a pillow so he could be comfortable. I spread some dirt from Israel in the coffin with him. I treated him as if he was my own father.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. When was the last time someone was this kind to my dad? This was a man who never met my father and never met any of my family. He and two other men, who also didn’t know us, spent time doing something that must not have been pleasant given how long my dad had been gone and we didn’t embalm. The Rabbi also told me that he found 10 other men to carry the coffin and pray the kaddish for my dad during the burial.
We walked to the plot where the cemetery staff had set up a lovely blue tent and blue chairs and tissues on each. This was more than I expected. My brother’s friends showed up (thanks guys!) and when we all sat down, there were exactly the number of chairs needed – not one extra nor one needed.
The Rabbi and his men carried my dad from the van to his final resting place, stopping every few steps to pray in Hebrew. He performed a brief service, more praying. I remember looking at all of these men who had taken off of work that morning to be there for a man they didn’t know. It was very moving.
We cried, we each shoveled dirt in the grave (including the 10 men), we said our goodbyes.
Before the grave was filled the Rabbi threw in dozens of books over the coffin. Tons of books, four to five boxes of Hebrew texts. “So that he has knowledge with him always.” I’ve never heard of this, and it was quite a sight to see all of those books in the ground. It was appropriate though since my pop loved to read and studied the Talmud when he was younger.
Overall it was a day of blessings and I finally felt at peace when it was over. My dad was finally settled and several people had come out to care for him in a really loving way. I was able to sleep well that night for the first time in weeks.
I did ask the Rabbi once how he felt about doing all of this for a man that actually thought Rabbis were con men and thought religion was silly. The Rabbi said, “People can lose their way, but we got him back in the end.” Not sure what to say about that.
I still have mixed feelings about what we did. I think my dad would have hated being buried in traditional clothing, and I didn’t know the Rabbi was going to do that. I think he would have thought all the praying was a waste of time. I think he would have asked me why I let his family pressure us into a traditional burial when that’s not how he lived his life. I know he would have hated how much money I spent on the whole thing. “Why you do this, Elana??” But I do think he would have liked being buried in Las Vegas since he loved that city so much and kept trying to get us to move there. And I know he would have loved all of us being together for him.
(Note: Please talk to your family about your preferences for your funeral/service. Write it down and make plans. It will really help those who have to handle all the details. We have decided on Better Place Forests and everyone in our family knows this.)