On Sunday afternoon, I stood on a hillside in a cemetery as my great aunt's coffin was lowered into the earth. At 93 years-old, she was the last of her siblings to pass away and thereby close a chapter in our family's history.
I have such conflicting emotions about the events on Sunday because I was very close to my great aunt who was an exemplar of kindness and hakaras hatov. She was a person who was a source of encouragement to others because she was continually happy and only spoke about the good points of others.
I think, however, that my conflicting emotions about Sunday stem from the fact that I cannot simply go to a funeral without becoming extremely agitated with the unconventional way funerals are handled in my family. Five years ago, one of my great-aunt's older brothers passed away, was cremated, and his ashes were scatted in a Jewish cemetery on the graves of his parents and brother and sister. I was so incensed about this idea at the time and felt helpless because I had absolutely no say in what happened. This pain was coupled with the knowledge that my own grandfather had been cremated as well.
With these experiences in my past, I walked into the Jewish funeral home on Sunday to be greeted with a funeral featuring an open casket. To make things worse, there was a half-hour before the service began and family members and friends gathered around the open casket cried, hugged, and even engaged in idle chit chat. I was horrified at the sight of people standing with their backs to an open casket and laughing with their friends. I wanted to scream at the lack of respect these people were displaying. But, I remained silent. Who was I, only a grand-nephew, to make a scene in front my great-aunt's children and grand-children while she lay in the room before us? In reality, what could I have done?
At the cemetery, I helped carry her coffin. My great aunt's son was across from me on the other side and began to ask me about my family; making me uncomfortable as we carried his mother to her final resting place. Once again, this sacred moment was shattered by small talk.
I threw a shovel full of earth on my great-aunt's coffin, as is tradition, and went over to give words of comfort to her son. I told him that not only is his mother now together with his father, but that I also remembered that there were other family members buried in this cemetery. I told him that that now she is also together with her parents and her brothers and sister; that she has left one family and has returned to another. He responded, "They are also buried here?" When I explained that they are buried at another cemetery, he quickly added, "Oh, you mean together in a metaphysical way."
I drove home with this comment echoing in my mind since I perceived that he used the word "metaphysical" in place of "make believe" or "hocus pocus". I lamented the fact that in today's society that many people have lost the ability to take the concept of a neshoma returning to its source in a literal manner. I reflected on how many sacred moments that I have witnessed in recent months that were marred by unthinking people; a bris in which people stood taking pictures with their camera phones over the mohel's shoulders; a wedding where members of the wedding party complained about being hungry and continually inquired when they would get to eat; and now this, sons standing with their backs to their mother's body while they laughed and engaged in small talk.
I have no more words. Perhaps I do not belong on this planet any more.