11 November 2009

Paying for the Privilege

One of the reasons funerals cost so much is because they can. This is a long story about large corporations gobbling up family owned funeral homes and maximizing profits on the backs of families in mourning who are, over a hole in the ground, as it were, to pay what they must in order to lay their families to rest. This is the main reason that I proudly serve on the board of the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel here in New York City: it's a non-profit. Because (and this could be their motto) no one should profit from death. (Though I heard Sony has made a killing since Michael Jackson died.)

Yesterday at a burial out on Long Island, I stuck around after the family left, as I have begun to do in the last couple years, until the grave is totally filled in. I generally require that we cover the coffin. And some families will stay, with shovels in hand, in order to complete the task of filling up the entire grave with earth. But more often than not, families will leave after the coffin has been covered and then I stay in order to supervise the completion of the task. It works out nicely and I appreciate the time to contemplate life and death, recite a few Psalms, and simply be.

So after continuing to shovel, I heard the bulldozer kick into gear and then four guys plus the bulldozer drive approached. Their laconic demeanor--likely owing as much to language and work environment (cemeteries aren't exceptionally chatty places)--was merely a window into one of the most bizarre sites I had ever seen. Four guys standing around while one struggled mightily to push earth into a hole in the ground.

What should have taken five minutes to complete took fifteen, during which time we all could have filled in the grave ourselves. I found myself getting increasingly annoyed. Especially since two of the five guys didn't have any dirt on their shoes and I was the moderate mess I usually am after a funeral: muddy shoes, smudged suit, kippah askew. Which is fine--it's work. And I like having something to show for it.

But then I wondered about costs and how they get monetized and passed on to mourners and not that I have any interest in depriving anyone the right to make a living but certain aspects of the enterprise struck me as simply wrong.

After the task was complete--and hey, if you're going to get to sit behind the wheel of a bulldozer, at least look like you're having fun, right?--I went to use the restroom and then ritually wash my hands. I stood at the hand-washing station next to a group of Hasidim who had just finished a burial and we were all slightly smudged and seeking to alter, through blessing, our status as we prepared to leave the cemetery.

I wondered what it would be to have a Burial Committee at CBE--who would, without hesitation, show up at our funerals and complete the task of burial. We could even have lunch afterward. Would that lower the intake costs at the cemetery? Likely not. But at least we'd all be paying for the privilege of performing a mitzvah.

Something to think about.

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