Friday, June 30, 2006
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?