I grew up in Wisconsin, where the Jewish cemeteries have the distinct trait of being tracts of land that are designed to blend in, not stand out, you know, be just like everyone else--but Jewish. Here in New York, the Jewish cemeteries represent a certain cast of proud, differentiated sacred history: broad shouldered, complex, even loud. A loud cemetery seems ironic, I know, but it's true. When you spend as much time in them as I do, you begin to hear voices among the trees and stones, calling forth ages long past. Not passively in repose, mind you, like Thornton Wilder's Our Town. We're talking Jewish cemeteries, where death is only a state of mind.
Like many social situations in Jewish life with the living and the dead, food is required. So if the procession requires a trip down Coney Island Avenue, I stock up for the ride with Israeli food as I gather my thoughts for the graveside service. Lately I've been stopping at a small restaurant called פול-Time (Full-Time) punning on fava beans. I order a zatar bread and feta sandwich, two potato burekas and Israeli fruit nectar, exchange some street Hebrew with the frum owner and Latino staff, and then zip out to the burial. I've learned over the years to eat well, since, given liberal Jews increasing distance from the dirt-under-the-nails reality of Jewish burial, I often do most of the heavy shoveling. Having eaten well makes me like a bear preparing a den for a long winter--someone else's cold, dark winter.
When my grandfather died in 1973, I stood above his frozen grave at age 10 and tasted for the first time the bitter reality of death. My grandmother, in the Eastern European style, wailed furiously. I remember her throwing herself to the ground. And as my father and uncle retrieved her, she had earth and snow on her coat and dress. This was the image of mourning. These days, as the officiating rabbi, I'm very conscious of what people are wearing and how it effects their movement--of the choreography, if you will, of burial. I notice how a purse falls down from shoulder to wrist and impedes the ability to shovel; how certain shoes work near a six-foot deep hole and others don't; I notice who tears his shirt in front of his dead and who does not. And most of all, I watch them with the shovel.
The shovel was left there by the men--Mexican, Irish, African American--who dug the grave with a tractor, covered the mound of earth with green turf, and then neatly lined up the tools for us to grab and use as the last act of kindness one human being can perform for another--חסד של אמת--lovingkindness of truth.
Today's Jews are too delicate with such truths. I try to model the act--heaving three heaping shovel-fulls of earth down into the hole, echoing off the casket with a rocky finality that is meant to awaken us to the painful reality of this experience. But most pass. They take hold of the shovel briefly, gently penetrate the mound of earth, and sprinkle, like an adornment, the final curtain. After a few moments time, as the line of participants thins, I wade back in, grabbing hold again of the shovel, and hammer away until the casket is covered. Sometimes my kippah falls off in the fury, and when I retrieve it from the ground, covered in dirt, I think back to my grandfather's funeral, and the earth and snow.
One time, at a very small graveside service, the family elected not to shovel any earth. There was the bulldozer standing at the ready, just in the distance, and it seemed logical to call it forward. So the family left and I said I'd stay behind til the job was finished. Four men stood guard while one steered the dozer into place and with a startling lack of skill, spent several minutes maneuvering his machine into place for just the proper replacement of sand and rock atop the deceased's already decaying body. I took the opportunity to address the men, all Latino, presumably not Jewish, and just about to take their lunch break, explaining to them that I had eaten, on Coney Island Avenue in fact, and if they didn't mind, while they watched their co-worker nudge his tractor into position, I would take a few minutes to perform a "good deed" on behalf of my God and my people. They nodded a distant nod and watched as alone, shovel in hand, I buried an old woman, one shovel-full of earth at a time.
After, I stopped at the restroom and then to wash my hands, joining at the cup of blessing a small group of Hasidim who were also engaged in the mitzvah of hand-washing after visiting a grave. I couldn't tell if our silence toward one another was the result of the seeming distance between our two Jewish lives or if the silence was simply our humility in the face of death. But then I decided that it wasn't silence at all between us but the sound of intention, of having fulfilled what is required, a sonic counter-weight to the engraved stones calling out to be read and the cold earth, falling on wood, bringing us closer to the end.