Navigate to Belief section

Down to Earth: The Vital Lessons Learned in Burying the Dead

Returning our deceased to the soil honors the injunction for a proper burial—and keeps us mindful of the life cycle of which we’re a part

by
Regina Sandler-Phillips
January 23, 2015
(Tablet Magazine)

(Tablet Magazine)

“Bury him a burial,” commands the biblical passage at the center of our Jewish funeral imperatives (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)—asserting that even the corpse of an executed criminal is worthy of respect. By traditional extension, all our Jewish dead are given the honor of levayah, which literally means “accompanying” to the grave. Full levayah includes active participation in burial, which carries two protections against desecration: one of the human body (adam), the other of the earth (adamah).

My funeral attire as a rabbi allows for full freedom of movement and is worn with the expectation that I will be actively navigating piles of soil, clay, or mud. An Italian-American friend of one bereaved family told me that I “wielded a shovel like an Italian ditch digger.” (It was a flattering, if irreverent, exaggeration.)

The ancient sage Shimon ben Gamaliel declares, “The learning is not primary, but the doing.” I’ve learned how to offer words and music, to help mourners share memories and recite Kaddish, to organize lines of comforters leading away from the grave.

As important as all of these are, I’ve come to believe that the speaking and singing are not primary, but the digging. When we accept the loving, wrenching imperative of returning bodies to the earth—adam to adamah—our own bodies help us move from sorrow to consolation. There are vital lessons to be found at the end of a shovel.

***

She was the matriarch of her family, even though she had never married or borne children. I was her hospice chaplain, and after she died I was asked to conduct her funeral. As we discussed arrangements by telephone, the deceased woman’s niece told me that she hated the idea of “throwing dirt” on her beloved aunt. She asked me to have the coffin lowered into the grave, recite Kaddish, and end the service there.

It was a delicate moment. “Well, let’s talk about this,” I responded gently, after a pause. “As a rabbi, I have two responsibilities at a funeral: honoring the dead and consoling the bereaved. The primary way I honor the dead is by helping to bury them. If you ask me to walk away from your aunt’s grave without helping to bury her, you’re asking me to choose between my two obligations—either honoring her or comforting you. I don’t think I can do that.”

The niece said she would talk with her family about it. As it turned out, her adult children had no objection to picking up shovels. The compromise we reached was that, at the time of burial, the niece and her husband would walk away from the grave, and then return for Kaddish after the rest of us had covered the top of the coffin with earth. This worked well for everyone involved.

As we spoke afterward, the niece did not seem at all disturbed by the proximity of gravediggers using a noisy backhoe to finish what we had begun. She told me about the circle of family plots, which now included her aunt, and how she remembered having picnics in this place as a child.

Buying in bulk has long been an effective strategy for the purchase of cemetery space. Along with members of synagogues, landsmenshaftn (associations of immigrants from the same European town), and other benevolent societies, many Jews of previous generations purchased blocks of graves on behalf of their relatives as “family circles.” It was common for the living to schedule cemetery picnics among the deceased in their family circle, although the practice was decried by some rabbis of the time as disrespectful to the dead.

Now I wonder whether a renewal of this tradition of family outings—with due attention to respect for other cemetery visitors and the deceased—might be a way to offer today’s children some experiential death education, beyond the popular culture of zombies and “the undead.”

After that particular funeral, I discovered that others nearby had picked up shovels for Joey Ramone. When I walked over to thank the gravediggers before leaving the cemetery, a weathered older worker pointed out the newly filled grave of the punk rock pioneer. Today his simple headstone juxtaposes family and media identities, the traditional Jewish star and a pair of musical notes.

***

“Don’t go professional on me,” my father cautioned, after telling me that his condition was terminal. Dad’s words—intended, characteristically, to deflect the focus away from him—restored me to myself and helped me to be fully present at his side for a death that came sooner than we had expected.

At my father’s graveside funeral in the hilltop cemetery near my childhood home, my brother and I each spoke personally on behalf of our family. I didn’t officiate, and I didn’t prepare a written eulogy. I remember only that my words were brief, heartfelt, and choked with tears. I sang some traditional verses of Psalms as well as El Malei Rahamim (“God, Full of Compassion,” the traditional memorial prayer) in a voice deepened and thickened by grief.

My mother brought roses, one each for my brother, sister, brother-in-law, and me to cast onto Dad’s plain wood coffin before picking up our shovelfuls of snow-covered earth. Mom cast two roses—one for Dad and one for herself—before picking up the shovel.

After we bereaved amateurs did our best to cover the coffin, we turned over the final shoveling to the professional gravediggers who stood by as silent witnesses. “I’ll stay until they’re finished,” declared my mother’s friend Evalyn. “That’s what my father always did.”

She and my mother were young teachers together before my parents met, and Evalyn had been a constant presence through our family transitions ever since. Indomitable through subsequent decades of living with multiple sclerosis, she now sat solidly on her motor scooter with her husband at her side. “You go back to the house, and we’ll see you there later.”

Don’t go professional on me.” As I turned away from my father’s grave, one of the two gravediggers approached me shyly and introduced himself as Gene Jackson. He told me that his own father had died recently, and that he had been very moved by our service. I hugged him and said I was sure that my father was in good hands. For a few brief moments, Gene and I were able to connect through our shared losses, before returning to our separate lives and respective professional roles of attending to death.

Looking through the back window of the car that took us away from the cemetery, I watched Gene and his co-worker continue to fill my father’s grave, with Evalyn’s faithful witness completing the levayah.

***

Shandi lived a complicated life, and he died a complicated death. One June evening I received a call from my cousin Sherry, who told me that the 31-year-old son of two friends had hanged himself and was in his final hours at a local hospital. I arranged to meet Shandi’s mother Paula, along with her partner Becca, my cousin, and another family friend at the ICU.

At Shandi’s bedside, I improvised a version of the traditional vidui, the final confession that may be said on behalf of the dying, and sang a traditional Jewish lullaby in Ladino as I supported the heartbroken women gathered around the bed:

Sleep, sleep, little mother’s child/ Sleep, sleep, without anxiety or pain…



Sleep, sleep, little mother’s child/ With the beauty of Sh’ma Yisrael.

Shandi drew his last breath soon after we left the ICU. I learned that he had long struggled with multiple addictions, had suffered many setbacks in recent recovery, and had just been admitted to the residential rehabilitation program in which he killed himself. Many staff and fellow residents of the rehab program joined us for Shandi’s graveside funeral at a local cemetery, close to where other generations of Paula’s family were already buried.

Shandi’s father and his brothers by subsequent marriages were not Jewish; neither were most of the others present at his funeral. Yet when I explained our Jewish traditions of active participation in the burial of the dead, his survivors simply picked up the available shovels and went to work. They kept shoveling—long past the point at which the top of Shandi’s coffin was covered, which is when most liberal Jews stop. It was a hot day, and I gently told Shandi’s brother Rafi that it was OK if they didn’t completely fill in the grave.

“Is it OK if we do?” Rafi asked. “Of course!” I responded, and told the funeral director that we needed more shovels. Some participants, waiting for their turn, picked up large stones and handfuls of earth, gently tossing them into the grave. I kept singing, providing encouragement and support between my own shoveling stints. At the end, almost nothing remained for the professional gravediggers to do except collect the shovels.

Shandi’s devastated survivors understood intuitively what much of modern Jewish culture has forgotten: that the physical act of burial offers vital opportunities for expressing grief. I have seldom seen a grave filled so completely and with such love, even at Orthodox Jewish funerals where full burial is the norm.

The Hebrew name on Shandi’s gravestone is one that we gave him posthumously. Like his legal first name, his Jewish ritual name is an unconventional one: Shanai, or Transformer. My Hebrew dictionary defines Shanai as “an instrument for changing the tension of an electrical circuit, and for regulating it as necessary.”

Paula and Becca live in the Midwest and try to visit Shandi’s grave each year around the anniversary of his death. I also visit his grave once a year, before the High Holy Days, since Shandi is buried in the same cemetery as members of my own extended family. After paying my respects to them, I walk across the grounds to Shandi’s row, where he lies among several others who also did not live to see old age. I sing El Malei Rahamim in his name, as I bear witness to love and wounding, the mysteries of the double helix of DNA that spiral through all of our family legacies. Shandi’s grave provides a special grounding for this witness.

***

There are Jewish traditions of using the backside of the shovel to fill the grave, and of not passing the shovel from hand to hand. I respect these traditions but consider them optional. What’s primary is the digging.

While shoveling clay on one particularly blazing afternoon, I realized that I had forgotten to eat and drink properly before the funeral—and that I was about to faint. Fortunately, a nurse and an EMT were among the mourners. They moved quickly and quietly, determined that there was no need to call an ambulance, and supplied me with a cold compress and water as I finished the ceremony while sitting on the ground.

“We will do and we will hear,” the Israelites assured Moses at Sinai (Exodus 19:8). This is interpreted to mean that comprehension comes with practice. We don’t need to do it perfectly; we don’t need to be professionals. We can support each other when we falter. We just need to pick up the shovels and start digging. Over time, we’ll understand.

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips is the director of WAYS OF PEACE Community Resources in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips is the director of WAYS OF PEACE Community Resources in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.