#8: In Loving Memory
Yesterday Diane commemorated the memory of her wonderful father, Aaron Glassman, who passed away 22 years ago (9 Adar, 5754). I had the privilege of getting to know him as my father-in-law. He was a gregarious and generous man, active in community causes and loving of his family, someone everyone looked up to. He loved gadgets and all things mechanical. There are many times when Diane and I look at some modern technology and think of what a kick her Dad would have gotten from it.
We’re also coming up in two weeks (26 Adar, 5741) on the quarter-century of the passing of my own father, Martin Rosenschein. He had a lot in common with Diane’s father, and the two of them got along exceptionally well. They were both modest, traditional, hard-working men, devoted to their families. In some ways they were different — Diane’s a born-and-raised American, mine a European immigrant. As we recently started watching “Band of Brothers”, we realized that one of our fathers landed in Auschwitz a week before the other landed on Normandy. I guess one rescued the other and here we are.
In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, I came across a wonderful column by a young book-review editor. I found it so deeply moving that I want to share it with you below.
May our fathers’ memories be a blessing.
Watching Over My Grandmother
By Bari Weiss
How do the rituals of death teach us how to live more meaningful lives? As religions go, Judaism is far more concerned about what happens in this world than the world to come. But as I learned this past weekend while burying my grandmother, Jewish rituals can serve not only to sanctify the dead, but also to humanize the living.
My grandmother, Sandy Steiner, who moved in with my family from Los Angeles 25 years ago to help raise my three younger sisters and me, was 81 years old when she died at home shortly after the Sabbath began on Friday night. In Judaism, a dead body is never to be left alone between the time of death and the time of burial. It’s a tradition called shmirah, or guarding, which dates to an ancient time when fear of rodents and grave-robbers was real.
Typically, the task is performed by volunteers, member of the community’s hevra kadisha — holy society — who do the watching in the funeral home. But if a person dies over the Sabbath, the body cannot be buried or even removed.
And so my grandmother’s family became her guardians: over a 24 hour period, her body covered in her bed, we watched over her.
My grandmother’s younger sister kept watch over Friday night. In the early morning hours Saturday, I sat with my younger sister. In the afternoon, my father sat with my uncle, followed by other family members who took her turns as the shomer or guard.
Traditionally, the shomer is supposed to sit quietly and recite Psalms. Our grandma was not so into the Psalms, but she could give you chapter and verse about the latest doings on E! and Bravo. And so we shared funny anecdotes about her, when we weren’t browsing through her copies of Vanity Fair or People. Surrounded by her books and family photos, we were reminded of a full life lived, as we sat beside the beautiful vessel of this woman we loved.
An hour after sundown on Saturday, which marks the end of the Sabbath, her body was taken from the house by members of the hevra kadisha. These are not strangers, but people we sit next to in synagogue — my father’s doctor, my best friend’s mother, volunteers all.
The members of this holy society prepare bodies for burial according to detailed rituals meant to honor the deceased and preserve their modesty. (It is for this reason that Jews prohibit open caskets.) Men prepare the bodies of men; women prepare women. The atmosphere in the room is quiet; only prayers are spoken, in Hebrew, including a final one asking for forgiveness if the dignity of the deceased has been violated in anyway. First the body is washed, then there is a ritual washing, before it is dressed in simple linen shrouds.
Judaism emphasizes that all are equal in death, but for a time Jews lost sight of this spiritual reality. By the second century in the Holy Land, the funerals of the wealthy had become so ostentatious that the poor, ashamed that they couldn’t keep up, left their relatives unburied outside the walls of Jerusalem. Rabbi Gamaliel, the leader of the Jewish community and a wealthy man, insisted that he be buried as a pauper in a plain shroud. His example of simplicity and humility in death has endured to this day.
My grandmother was buried in a plain wooden box. In keeping with Jewish law, the coffin had no metal — even the sides were connected by wooden dowels. The aim is to ensure it’s complete disintegration, fulfilling the verse from Genesis: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
At the burial, her family and friends filled in her grave. In shoveling the dirt we were performing a chesed shel emet — a true act of kindness — because it is something that cannot be repaid.
My grandmother’s life’s work was as a caretaker for her family — in addition to bringing up three daughters, she helped raise four of her grandchildren. Diapers, meals, car pools; Saturday nights spent watching blockbuster rentals with us so my parents could have a date night.
It is the natural way of things that those who have been caretakers ultimately become the cared for. In the last few weeks of her life — diagnosed with terminal cancer after already having survived bouts with the breasted lung cancer, she didn’t cry — she was tended to around-the-clock by my mother and her two sisters, who made sure she died at home, surrounded by family.
When so much in modern life is outsourced, there is something clarifying, maybe even purifying, about witnessing a loved one’s final days. In caring for someone after death, and being expected to take part in rituals at once deeply uncomfortable and comforting, I realized the Judaism was forcing us to examine our own lives and deed — and to ask ourselves: are we putting our own vessels to their best use?
— Ms. Weiss is an associate book review editor at the Wall Street Journal.
Also see WSJ interview with Bari Weiss and column by Brett Stephens: A Lesson before Dying.