Friday, June 30, 2006

Burying Bubbe

This Table Talk is about a sensitive topic relating to death, and may not be appropriate for all readers.

In memory of Yehudis bas Alexander Ziskin

My mom and I had been in Israel for a day and a half when we got the urgent phone call.

What could be urgent? “I have some bad news.” What could it be? It never dawned on me that my nonagenarian grandmother might have died. We had just spoken the day before, and she had sounded fine, always happy to hear a cute story about the kids.

Flurry of phone calls. Airlines, doctors, uncles, funeral homes, cemeteries, rabbis. A 3 a.m. rush to the Western Wall to tear my shirt and touch the stones.

And now she is to be laid to rest today, June 30.

Or is she?

You see, my grandmother’s wish, stated in writing, was to be placed in a crypt next to her late husband. In case you have never seen one, a modern crypt is wall covered with rectangular doors, each one about the size of the cross-section of a coffin. They look something like a bank of very large post office or safety deposit boxes, each one bearing its resident’s name and accompanied by a small shelf for the bereaved to leave flowers.

My forward-thinking grandparents purchased their boxes thirty years ago at a fraction of today’s market. And so Bubbe lived her years of widowhood comforted by the knowledge that she would eventually rejoin her beloved husband with no more than a few layers of wood and steel separating them for eternity.

This belief is comforting as long as one sees life as primarily physical (with a spiritual dimension): once the spiritual dimension has parted, let’s let the two sets of physical remains be close together.

If, however, you see the world as the Kabbalists do, as a spiritual place with a physical dimension, then you understand death not as the body’s loss of the soul but as the soul’s loss of the body.

When that occurs, an average person’s materialism is strong enough that the body’s disintegration actually helps the soul to detach itself fully and to go to where it needs to go. The process happens most rapidly when a person is buried directly in the ground. The more we do to keep that person out of the ground – such as hardwood or laminated coffins, embalming, crypts – the more we may be hindering that soul from going where it needs to go, to rest in peace.

Well, that was Bubbe’s wish, after all, wasn’t it? How can we not honor that?

It seems to me that my grandparents’ real goal was to be truly together for eternity – that is, in spirit not in bone. Thus, the truest way to honor her request to be with her husband is to help her join him in spirit. It wasn’t the crypt that they cared about, it was each other; if they had known the Jewish teachings about death, they would have surely chosen the most expeditious and reputable means.

With Bubbe’s passing, Yiddish has left the family. But the twinkle in the eye, the love of books and conversation, and the zest for life are already growing in her great-grandchildren.

Question for the table: Have you ever known someone who passed away, who was so spiritual that they probably didn’t need the experience of bodily disintegration in order to detach and go to the world of souls?

Shabbat Shalom.


Anonymous said...

I mourn your loss but think it was wrong not to bury her in the crypt, if that is what you did. If you did not follow her instruction you interpreted her wish to fit your view of reality. In fact, you only think you know what is best based on your interpretation of Jewish teachings, and this is just your opinion. She asked for what she wanted, and her express instruction should have been followed.

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

Anon: Since when do we do to others according to their wishes when we believe that doing so is detrimental to them? If an unconscious patient left written instructions to have a controversial treatment that the doctor in charge believes to be harmful, should he administer it, if he believes a different treatment is beneficial? If a client expressly asks his lawyer to file a motion that the lawyer believes to be harmful while a helpful motion is available, should he not act in the best interest of his client?

Did you follow the Moussaoui trial? Did you find that his lawyers acted wrongly when they ignored his instructions and did their best to save his life?

Your conclusion would have us act cruelly. Better to abstain than to violate one's principles.

Anonymous said...

No, the doctor and the lawyer can provide their advice but in the end the choice is for the patient and the client to make. This is required under U.S. law. I believe it is also ethically and morally correct.

Anonymous said...

I just read your last two paragraphs. It is only your interpretation that you would have acted cruelly if you followed your bubbe's wishes. In the future rabbis may reinterpret the law and conclude that burial in a crypt is equally acceptable. In that case, you would be the one who acted cruelly. We should never assume we know what is best for someone else.

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

Anon: please cite any source - legal, ethical or moral - that states that a doctor must administer a medicine or treatment that he personally believes to be harmful to the patient.

No conscientious healer, be he a medical doctor, acupuncturist, chiropractor or shaman, would ever do such a thing.

According to you, these lawyers acted inethically and in fact illegally. Is that correct?

Anonymous said...

You didn't address my main point, which is your view of what is best is just your opinion, and it could be reinterpreted in the future.

I am not an expert in the Moussaoui case, so I cannot comment on the behavior of his lawyers. I do know that defendants have the right to represent themselves, even in capital punishment cases, provided they are mentally competent.

Concerning doctors, adult patients have the legal right to deny any and all treatment for themselves. Doctors, pharmacists and others can deny treatment for their own religious or other reasons but only if another doctor or pharmacist is available to provide that treatment. Again, the patient's choice must be respected.

If your bubbe had consulted another rabbi she might have received different advice. Or, as I stated above, future rabbis might conclude it makes no difference where someone is buried.

You are an intelligent man and you must surely understand that Jewish law and ritual, like all law and ritual, are continually being reinterpreted and changing over time. You really have no idea what God intended, and whether he really prefers burial in the ground over burial in a crypt.

Anonymous said...

I did some research:

"Nonetheless, the Reform movement permits mausoleum entombment. The Conservative position is a bit trickier. "One can go back in Jewish history and find that Jewish burials in crypts and mausoleums were, in fact, permitted," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the movement's Rabbinic Assembly. "What happened over time was that the practice became to only bury in ground and that became the tradition really of most of the people who came from northern Europe. This tradition became the overwhelming tradition of Jews.""

So, a reform rabbi and some conservative rabbis would have respected her wish to be buried next to her husband in the crypt. Your choice for her was based on your interpretation of the law and tradition. You should have respected her choice.

Anonymous said...

On another note, when my grandfather, who was not a particularly religious man, was very ill, one day he started talking like he was having a conversation. It sounded like he was playing cards (a favorite past-time of his). My grandmother had interjected and asked with whom he was having a conversation. He said he was playing with my dad, Bernie and another man (who had never all played cards together before, and were all deceased). My grandfather died later that night and my family knew that he was already in good hands on the other side. I've heard a number of other stories like this and I don't think that it is so hard for the soul to relinquish the body once it has finished its job.
On the other hand, if it is so important for the body to be gone sooner, so that the soul can disengage, then why aren't Jews cremated?

Suzanne said...


I'm sorry for your loss. I understand how you would follow your conscience rather than Bubbe's wishes as far as burial.

What bothers me is this: How much longer would it take for the soul to leave the body if it were laid to rest in a crypt rather than buried in a Jewish manner? Is it for a long enough time that it would make sense to supersede Bubbe's wishes?

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

Suzanne, it seems that the neshama cannot get its rest until the body is in the ground.

(I am still in California until the end of shiva, so do not have access to my books. If you remind me I can look up the reference for you in a week.)

LP said...

Re crypt/mausoleum vs. in-ground burial. Anon is mistaken in that Jews buried in crypts alone. What they did in Talmudic times, is bury in the ground, then after a year or so, bury the bones in an ossuary -- and that was in a crypt (e.g. Beit Shearim). But there was in-ground burial first.