Death. Unknowable. Unmanageable. Inescapable... Thus, the rules. Melissa Dribben reflects on the human need for security and order in the wake of death. Originally published February 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.
If having control over the course of your life is an illusion – and as sure as meningitis, cheating hearts and oil futures, you know it is – then trying to plot a course, post-mortem, is even more futile.
Death. Unknowable. Unmanageable. Inescapable. The cosmic equivalent of Britney Spears. Which is why humans have always tried so hard to impose order on the damned thing.
Thus, the rules.
Rules about what to do with a corpse (wash, shroud, embalm, mummify). How to behave in its presence (cry, get snockered, wax eloquent, hold a parade). How to get rid of it (burn, bury, entomb, toss overboard, feed to vultures).
Individual creativity in this domain is not appreciated by those who find psychic comfort and safety in prescribed structure. Stray from the rituals, they believe, and you could lose your soul.
At a minimum, you will freak out your relatives.
In the spring of 2004, I got a call from a social worker somewhere in upstate New York.
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you,“ he said. “But your uncle William has died.“
This should not have come as shock. Uncle Willy was, after all, almost 99. But it was surprising, nevertheless, because I didn’t even know he was still alive. He had stopped speaking to me six years earlier.
The conversation that ended our relationship was short and shocking. I had called to ask if he’d like a visit.
“After what you did to your mother?“ he said.
I had no idea what he was talking about. She had died a few months earlier, through no fault of my own, brain cancer, and I had nursed her in my home until the end.
“What did I do?“
“You had her cremated!“
That’s what she’d wanted.
“I never want to speak to you again. Don’t call me.“ Click.
My mother was raised in an orthodox Jewish family, but when she was 16, she forswore organized religion. She brought up her own children as cultural Jews, teaching us only a few rules, applied inconsistently. We ate lobster, shrimp and bacon, but never pork roast. We lit candles on Hanukah and exchanged presents on Christmas.
Coming from a home where the only cardinal sin, so to speak, was to marry a goy, who knew that cremation was not kosher?
Uncle Willy knew. And he found the transgression intolerable.
Jewish law, apparently, requires ritual cleansing of the body, which is to be wrapped in a shroud and buried quickly, some say, without a coffin – although that’s one rule Uncle Willy wasn’t up on, but I’ll get to that later.
Like a lot of religious mandates, the rules surrounding death and burial can be, to paraphrase one noted man of faith, dividers rather than uniters.
Last year in Israel, a funeral home that had secretly performed cremations for customers wishing for a more economical – and ecological – exit was outed and burned to the ground, reportedly by arsonists.
“The Nazis buried far more Jews than they burned, so are we also not going to bury people?“ said Alon Nativ, director of the Aley Shalechet funeral home, quoted in the New York Times. In support of his secular practice, he told the Times that pretty decent Jews like Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Milton Friedman had chosen cremation.
My mother is in distinguished company.
She was an eminently practical woman who abhorred waste and self-indulgence. She admired the Shakers for their thrift and simplicity. And she wanted to be cremated because it was the frugal way to go.
Uncle Willy had different priorities.
Although he severed our ties, he left one important string attached: I was still in his will, there on the very short list of survivors to be notified of his death.
When I asked his social worker about my uncle’s final few years, he told me a story so sweet and sad that it neutralized the bitterness of our last conversation. I pick it up every so often, like an old wedding veil or a piece of vintage silk, and get soggily sentimental.
“After his wife died, he had a very hard time,“ the social worker said.
“She died too?“
Six years earlier Aunt Marie had still been around; I heard her talking to Willy in the background before the receiver hit the cradle.
They had been married forever and lived the most cautious, circumscribed lives I have ever known. I’m sure they had sex sometime in the 1950s, but they had no children. They may have had a cat once, and houseplants. They’d enjoyed no great achievements or adventures, just simple jobs, small apartments, modest joys. I remember them being kind, but a little depressing.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, I took my mother to Waterville, N.Y., to meet them for an Early Bird lunch in one of those old inns with heavy everything: blue velveteen drapes, gray creamy gravies, soggy croutons. They ate, they reminisced. We paid, kissed them good-bye, and never saw them again.
Marie had co-existed with multiple fatal illnesses for decades. When she left Willy behind, he moved into a nursing home and awaited his turn.
“He would carefully lay out a checkered tablecloth and place a framed picture of her across from him every night when he had dinner,“ the social worker said.
“I wish I’d known,“ I said, crying helplessly. “We were his family. He didn’t have to be alone.“
But without Marie, he was.
I drove two hours with my daughter to attend his funeral. When we arrived, the receptionist looked puzzled. She checked her schedule, made a few phone calls. Eventually, a rabbi appeared. “I didn’t think anyone was coming,“ he said.
I followed him up a grand staircase to a marble hallway.
“Your uncle chose an above-ground burial,“ he explained.
Apparently, Marie and Willy were squeamish about spending eternity down below. So they’d cherry-picked the burial rules and decided it was all right with G-d to buy themselves a safety deposit box. (Which can run – for a double-entombment – upwards of $60,000. Talk about holier than thou.)
The rabbi read a prayer. Six soldiers, braided and brass-buttoned and fantastically disciplined, played Taps, folded a flag in precise triangles and handed it to me, for lack of a more worthy survivor.
Then they put Willy’s coffin on a metal contraption that, at the push of a button, rose to the upper stories of the tombs, slid him in and shut the door.
And there he abides, next to Marie, safe and sound. Side by side in “a dry, ventilated entombment,” as the brochures say, “protected from the elements.” A fitting end to the boxed-in lives they led, snugly bound by their chosen rules.