The burial site in the Jewish cemetery quite near my home turned out to be almost directly across the narrow road from the grave of one of my oldest friend's father.
As Leon was buried the other day, I was reminded of how much I like the realism of the ways Jews traditionally deal with death. It's something I'll be talking a bit about when I co-teach a class on end-of-life issues the week of July 9 at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. (Come join me.)
In the photo here today you see at the far right someone shoveling soil into the grave. As described by Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff (the man at the right end of the line of people watching and waiting to participate), Jews first use the shovel upside down to remind them that death turns out world upside down.
Then mourners who wish to are asked to follow that upside-down shovel with two rightside-up shovels of soil as a way of remembering that we are twice as committed to life as we are to death.
Here is the way Maurice Lamm explains the burial tradition in his book, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning:
"Custom has it that the shovel should not pass from hand to hand, but each person should replace it in the earth. This is a silent, symbolic gesture expressing the prayer that the tragedy of death be not 'contagious,' and that the remainder of family and friends may live long and peaceful lives."
Then the rabbi leads the burial Kaddish prayer, which Lamm describes as "a prayer affirming that God, in His good time, will create the world anew, and that the deceased will be raised up to everlasting life." (Christians, by the way, also affirm that, in the end, God intends to redeem the whole creation, not simply disembodied souls.)
My friend Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, in his book Accessible Judaism, says this about the Kaddish prayer:
"(It's) one of the most sacred prayers, sanctified by its association with death, although at no point is death even mentioned. In fact, it is an affirmation of life which proclaims the eternity of God, His grace and His sovereignty, and demands peace on Earth. When our faith is most tested (at the incomprehensible moment of death), we praise God and affirm our desire to unify a broken world. That is, in the face of adversity, we demand goodness and a better world."
In traditional Judaism, mourners don't shy away from the reality of death. They watch the casket being lowered into the ground. They cover it with soil. They say farewell. And then, willing to confront God, they "demand goodness and a better world" -- demanding, in other words, that God act like God and keep the promises God has made.
Lots to learn from all of this. We might call it a spirituality for reality.
* * *
HEAVEN AND HELL IN ART
And speaking of death, what of an afterlife? There's currently what looks to be a fascinating exhibit of art in Chicago about both heaven and hell. Maybe I can get there when I'm in Chicago later this year. But in any case, I wish some local gallery would sponsor a similar exhibit. Our artistic ideas about the afterlife are endlessly engaging.