Going to funerals as a kid and a young man, I remember noticing how the rabbis always managed to seamlessly comfort the family and mourners at the graveside and then leave, carefully coordinating their departure, while mourners remained at the site, contemplating the finality of death. In my memory, the cars were always black--likely the limousines provided by the funeral homes--and no matter the season, the air seemed to acquire a kind of chill as a symbol of faith left the cemetery. No marker for the dead yet stood; cemetery workers milling about, helping to fill in the grave, the shocked, distant look on the faces of those contemplating, absorbing, the finality of loss.
I'm not really a limo guy. Not that there's anything wrong with it. When doing funerals, I enjoy kibbitzing with the drivers of hearses and limousines. They have eyes and ears on the death process that reveal great truths and frankly I always enjoy talking to them in the transitional moments of funeral day. But I've long developed the habit of driving myself to and from funerals, mostly because I like the time alone to think, to drive (a classic if not slowly waning American tradition), and to navigate the city and its surrounding areas, always seeing something, learning something new about this massive metropolitan area.
And after serving as a rabbi for fifteen years, I've yet to figure out where to put my car once I arrive at the cemetery in order to seamlessly leave the scene. I can never plan ahead well enough to leave right after the burial.
Clearly, I never could have planned the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
I identify in such moments not with the rabbi in the long coat and the dark car leaving the graveside but with Robert Frost, truth be told; or Wallace Stevens; or William Carlos Williams: men who worked at their jobs but loved to think about the poetry of life, who lived to slow themselves down in certain moments in order to record them in their mind and in their case, certainly far greater than in mine, record them on paper for others to read and absorb.
So while my car remains hemmed in, and the families drift about for the first ten minutes or so after burial, I wander among the stones in other sections, recording names of old burial societies long forgotten, musing about names once popular among Jewish new Americans, and take note of fonts and carvings and gravestone artwork that is as alluring as any ritual art ought to be, or as galling and tacky as it should not be. In the springtime and summer, birds are a major part of this experience. They busy themselves with their environment, seemingly oblivious to the devastation beneath their wings, but saintly in their pursuit of the mundane: a twig for a nest; a worm from the damp ground.
I wondered, yesterday, how long Jews will bury their dead. I truly worry about that. The tenuous ties that bind us to sacred ground are diminishing and as is often the case in the cemetery, I find myself remembering one of the reasons I became a rabbi was to keep this link, this practice, alive. Sacred land and sacred rites. Names carved in stone. Geographic regions where Jews once lived remembered in the names of burial societies that cared for them here, on these shores. At the cemetery in Elmont yesterday, on JFK's flight path, planes roared overhead, drowning out the sounds of psalms and birds and mourners cries.
I looked up at one point and the plane was flying so low I could see its markers. It was an El Al plane, going to or coming from Israel. "Jews are always moving," I said to the birds. "And every once in a while, we stop."