WORTHY OF BURIAL

When the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Your people will be totally righteous” he hit it out of the ballpark. Implied, is that at present, HaShem’s people are anything but righteous. What happens then, when a Jew, a scoundrel, a low life, a “shandeh” to his fellowman as well as to his maker, dies of either natural or unnatural causes? Should that person be accorded or denied a proper Jewish burial?

I couch my question carefully, in that one must not confuse Jewish burial with a Jewish funeral.

The two, while inextricably connected, are so totally different from one another. Jewish burial – perhaps burial in all religions and ethnicities – revolves around tending to the corpse and ensuring that it is properly laid to rest in accordance with law and practice; a Jewish funeral revolves around tending to and reflecting upon the life of the one who has been taken from the world. Jewish burial requires following a checklist, mandated by halacha; a Jewish funeral calls upon clergy and other eulogizers to dig into their resourcefulness, so that the positive attributes of the deceased are brought to light, while the negative attributes of the deceased are either downplayed or overlooked. A Jewish funeral is for the living; a Jewish burial is for the dead.

When the Shulchan Aruch or Code of Jewish law presents the halachot or laws concerning a bringing a deceased to his or her final resting place, the only reference to the character of the deceased concerns murder. A murderer – whether when someone else is the victim or when oneself is the victim (viz. suicide, assuming mental or psychological abnormalities were not at play) is not to be buried together with all others. Rather, a separate section is to be made available in the Jewish cemetery for the grave. A murderer, a dangerous thief, a miscreant, a molester, a sexual predator or any other type of “oisvorff” (Yiddish for someone who is to be ejected from society) is to be accorded a Jewish burial. No if’s, and’s or but’s. As far as according a murderer, a dangerous thief, a miscreant, a molester, sexual predator or any other type of “oisvorff” a Jewish funeral (viz. that which occurs between preparing the body and burying the body),  both the community as well as the individual have (in the words of Samuel Goldwyn) the right to say “include me out.”

I cringe when a hear someone invoke “who are we to judge.” Little does that person realize that he is restating “judge not, lest you be judged” from the Book of Matthew. Source aside, would that same individual invoke “who are we to judge” when it comes to proclaiming another person as innocent, a jewel of a person, a real sweetheart, a beautiful human being? Is that not also judging? More importantly, when it comes to burial, a far more adept, capable and equitable judgement is taking place, by a force far greater than any mere mortal. It is at that judgement, that final judgement, where we believe fitting  punishment is dispensed and just rewards are given out.

Permit me to introduce a new word to your vocabulary: moirologist. A moirologist is a professional or paid mourner, present at the cemetery when a burial takes place. At one time moirologists were common in Egyptian, Chinese, Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures; at one time, moirologists could be found in the shtetl, bewailing a loss. I, for one, would very much like to see the reinstatement of moirologists. There are certain burials, where their presence would be most welcome, necessary and hopefully most effective. Among those burials would be that of a miscreant, a scoundrel, an oisvorff, a “shandeh” to his fellow man, as well as to his maker. I would like to hear crying and wailing, not for the deceased, but for the living. Let the moirologists evoke tears from good and decent people in society, realizing that a life was snuffed out long before the last breath was breathed. Let good and decent people mourn for the innocent lives of victims damaged and scarred. Let good and decent people cry, letting HaShem know that He is not alone in His disconsolation, that such an individual unfortunately walked the face of this earth and is now being tossed back into that earth.

I Did Not Cry When My Mother Died

Think of me what you will, but I did not cry at my mother’s funeral.  Perhaps it was because I had time to prepare myself mentally and emotionally, or perhaps that’s just the way I am.  It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me well, but from the very beginning to the very end, when it came to escorting my mother to her final resting place, I was forever the Rabbi.

But I did cry.  The day after the funeral when I began to sit shiva at my sister’s house in Chicago, I read a note that the flight attendant had handed me.  We were late leaving DFW and I feared missing my connection in Minneapolis to the G-d forsaken city, Winnipeg (which ultimately did happen.)  Because I was seated in practically the last row of the aircraft, I explained my plight to the flight attendant.  Not only did she move me to the front of the plane, but as I bolted from the aircraft, she handed me a handwritten note on a napkin.  It read:  “Dear Mr. Zell, I’m very sorry to hear about your recent loss, and I’m sorry that our unexpected delay has added more stress to your already difficult situation.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.  I wish I could do more.  She’lo teida od tza’ar (may you know of no more sorrow.)”

I cried the day of the funeral, when I greeted two cousins of mine.  It’s been thirty years since I’ve seen one of them. One flew in from Edmonton and the other turned his car around 120 miles west of Winnipeg as he was heading home to Banff.  There was no doubt in his mind that he would be present to bury his Aunt Ida.  Together, with four others, these two cousins from different sides of the family met to escort my mother’s casket to the hearse, as we made our way to the cemetery for the service.  Upon arriving at the cemetery, I was nearly brought to tears as I looked out and saw thirty-five people, who had come to pay their respects. Some of them family, some of them friends – going all the way back to grade school.  And there I was, having been of little faith, doubting very much that a minyan would be present so that my sisters and I could recite kaddish.

I cried when I met Harlene and Jay Pine, neighbors of my sister, who two weeks earlier, were on an odyssey to visit a grave of a great grandfather buried in the G-d forsaken city.  While there, they made it a point to visit with my mother and spend over an hour with her looking at photographs.  I cried at the daily phone calls that my mother would receive from her friend, Miriam Diamond, checking in to see if everything was okay.  I cried at the visits my cousins would make from time to time coming over to the house to spend precious moments with their Aunt Ida.

I cried at the outpouring of concern and support, the trays of food, the text messages, emails, and phone calls from Chicago, Toronto, New Jersey, Israel, and of course, Dallas.  They mean more to me than anyone can possibly imagine.  They will be remembered and cherished for many years to come.

In all likelihood, I will continue to cry from time to time, not because my mother died but because my mother lived, imbuing me with priceless, as well as timeless, lessons of life that no institution of education could ever offer, and precious memories that will be cherished increasingly with the passage of time.

It is the prophet Isaiah who reminds us that Hashem will wipe away the tears from all faces.  My tears of blessing and gratitude however will remain in my heart for as long as I live.