Two months after my mother’s death, I was following my brother down a rocky cliff to the secluded beach along the Pacific Coast where he had selected to release her ashes.
It was painful enough that our mother had died so recently, and so swiftly. She had been a healthy, still-working 81-year-old. But as we slowly made our way to the sea, I realized what I was feeling was more than grief. The fact that my mother had been cremated—something not permitted by Jewish law—had me feeling off balance, like I was in someone else’s story.
My mother and I had been living different spiritual storylines for decades, divided in our views about our Jewish heritage. Even though she was gone, I didn’t know if I could reconcile our divergent perspectives. How could I mourn my mother in a way that felt true to me, Jewishly, when her life—particularly its end—had stood so firmly outside of that tradition?
My mother was Jewish—on both sides, going back generations—but she had never been observant or interested in ritual or tradition. During the years they were married, my father was similarly disinclined. There wasn’t a single prayer book or Shabbat candle or anything with a Hebrew letter anywhere in the house I grew up in. We were not synagogue members, sukkah makers, or hosts for holiday gatherings on Passover or Rosh Hashanah or Hanukkah. The only spiritual book I ever saw in the house was Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.
After my parents divorced, my mother entered into a long-term relationship with a Christian man who had Buddhist leanings. Their home was punctuated with little Buddhas and Japanese prints and books about Zen Buddhism. They were regular attendees at Christmas services. She wasn’t only ignoring her Jewish heritage, it seemed to me that she was pushing it to the side and embracing another religion.
It was her choice, of course. She was comfortable with this, and I wanted her to be happy. My mother and I were close and in sync on so many other fronts: politically, morally, psychologically. Our spiritual leanings were the biggest divide between us.
I was the only one in my family who observed Jewish tradition, a desire that grew stronger after marrying my more Jewishly raised husband and becoming a mother. On those car rides to the synagogue we had joined to educate our daughters, the questions they asked that I could not answer led me to enter the building for my own Jewish education. Those classes led me to my adult bat mitzvah and a celebration that had both my parents shaking their heads, wondering why I’d go through all that study, all that trouble! My bat mitzvah led to four years of teaching religious school and, ultimately, to the teaching I do now, in and out of Jewish communities.
Though she didn’t connect with it herself, my mother did understand that I was falling in love with the religion of my ancestors. On her trips to Chicago, at my urging, she would accompany me to a Torah class or a synagogue event. It wasn’t her first choice of things for us to do together, but she’d graciously agree. Her compromise.
Because she was a reader and intellectually curious, I held out hope that a stimulating Torah discussion or an engaging speaker might spark her interest. But she never connected to Jewish holidays or Jewish culture; she’d grown up in a home in which her parents didn’t want to appear “too Jewish.”
For most of my adult life, because we lived in different cities, our opposing observances didn’t come up much. She never planned a trip to visit during Passover or Rosh Hashanah. I wasn’t likely to go to church with her in Philadelphia on Christmas. We’d gather instead on the nonreligious holidays like Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day and for the most part, we kept our spiritual lives separate.
After she died on Christmas Eve morning in 2017, our spiritual leanings stood upright and placed themselves front and center. In her will, she had made two requests: 1) no shiva, and 2) cremation. We had talked about these decisions in the abstract but I hadn’t given them too much thought as there always seemed to be plenty of time.
Note to self: There’s never plenty of time.
It was only after her death that I recognized how much I had relied on Jewish ritual in my adult years. I had been to a great many Jewish funerals of my husband’s extended family and business associates, as well as congregants in my synagogue and Jewish community.
Though my minimally observant grandparents on both sides had chosen cremation, they also chose to have Kaddish read at their memorials, which I was asked to recite. My husband and I hosted the shiva for my father-in-law.
I was disappointed that I wouldn’t have the chance to be supported by friends and family. But I could live with that decision.
But cremation. What was I supposed to do with that?
Take my ashes somewhere beautiful, she wrote. Say nice things about me and scatter them.
Jewish tradition tells us to keep the body intact and in place, to carefully watch it until the time of burial. There are no guidelines for moving it from place to place. We believe in the sacredness of the body that souls leave behind.
But that’s not what my mother wanted. Instead, the funeral home sent a gentleman in a suit holding a white cardboard box with a gold seal in a white paper bag.
Taking my mother, like luggage, onto the flight to San Francisco was going to be an entirely different kind of transit. The only time I let her out of my sight was when she went through the airport X-ray machine. When I got onto the plane, I grabbed a bulkhead seat and put her on my lap. A flight attendant leaned over and informed me that I would have to stash my package in the overhead bin.
“But I can’t. It’s my mother,” I heard myself say.
After a chorus of Ohhhhs and I’m so sorry’s, I was told I would still have to part with her. Airline regulations. I had made enough of a commotion that someone kindly offered to change seats with me. When I shared with my seatmates that my mother was sitting with us, it made for very interesting conversation all the way there.
In the days before our makeshift memorial that, thankfully, my brother planned, I knew we would make a beautiful service, but I was jumping out of my skin with discomfort. Where were my grounding pieces of Jewish mourning? The dressing in dark colors. The gathering of extended family. The rabbi’s calming words. The familiar comfort of a sanctuary. The car ride to the cemetery. Tossing shovels full of earth onto the coffin that’s lowered into the ground. Returning home to family and friends for hand washing and more carbohydrates than any human being needs.
Instead, we took off early in the morning for that stretch of secluded beach for a walk that felt like many I’d taken before with my brother in Northern California. The ocean was in front of us, high cliffs protected us from behind, and there was nothing else around but the gentlest breeze.
He lifted the plastic bag from its container and poured the ashes that remained of our mother in a thick line on the sand. We stood silently as each foamy wave reached for her, absorbing her as she united with the ocean, telling her how much we loved her and why.
I read from her copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and recited the Kaddish. My compromise. A salve for my Jewish soul.
We stood there for a long time. Hours. Much longer, it occurred to me, than I would have been inclined to stay at a cemetery. This could be a place, I thought, that I might want to return. Again and again.
As the spine of her bony fragments slowly disappeared, it was impossible to deny that we were witnessing something holy, as if the earth was inhaling her. Taking her back. My eyes were a blur of tears, but I was riveted by the scene she seemed to have orchestrated from her death.
Was it possible that my mother was more spiritual than I thought? Could she be showing us another way one might return to the Source, beyond the grave?
Suddenly, two harbor seals appeared a few feet from shore, eyeing us steadily, watching us until the ocean swallowed the last dot of her. I found myself thinking, could those seals be her mother and father? Showing up as witnesses? To escort her to wherever she was going next?
I was surprised that the thought had come to me, but in that moment it just felt possible.
In the months that followed our burial release—this improvised farewell—I knew that we had given her what she wished for, but I was troubled by the image of my mother merging, solo, with the sea. She may have been comfortable it, but I wasn’t. Yes, it had been beautiful. Mesmerizing. But I was plagued by whether we had sent her off righteously, honorably, Jewishly.
When I returned a year later to that same section of beach to honor her yahrzeit, I was hoping for a sign that though our ritual hadn’t been traditional, it was still good.
That’s when, way out in the distance, I saw them. Three seals bobbing playfully, unaware of my gaze, my relief—and my gratitude.
Ellen Blum Barish’s personal essays have appeared in The Chicago Tribune and Brevity, aired on Chicago Public Radio, and been heard in live lit venues around Chicago.