Blessed Is The Righteous Judge

Baruch Dayan ha’Emet.

His already cold white hand slithered through my soapy gloves like a live fish as I tried to wash the fingers: blue sausages strange to me, unlike the skillful fingers that twirled and carved and painted in an epoch now seeming so long ago.

“Those hands, those hands,” my mother murmured over my shoulder.  She had volunteered to wash his body, a last act of kindness, but gave up when she saw that he was really dead.

“His fingers are turning blue,” she observed, almost casually.  I wanted to back-hand her, but instead interlaced my fingers with the cold dead ones in order to wash his arm and chest.  Just a couple of days ago we had interlaced our warm fingers just so, when he first lost the ability to talk.

“Look, his chest has hardly any hair left on it,” chirped the grisly bird at my shoulder.

How long had it been since she looked at his once bear-like chest, black with thick curly hair?  Probably when he ceased to be a “man” to her, which she had had no compunctions about trumpeting in that booming voice of hers, at her famous dinner parties, with him sitting right there shrinking into himself, mortified, unable to defend himself.

I concentrated on rinsing off the soap with clean wet washcloths, and tried to close his mouth, which had fallen open some weeks ago, making speech even more difficult for him; and now it seemed that it had stuck that way, and I couldn’t get it to stay shut.  I could not stand to let his gullet stand open to the public like that, so I called for some gauze and placed a carefully folded square behind his teeth.  It looked odd, but seemed better than the gaping maw.

The undertaker showed up before I had a chance to wash his face, and suddenly the hospice nurse became all business: a stark contrast to the all-compassion face she had on before he died.  Now it was just the routine, slide the limp item over from the hospital bed to the undertaker’s stretcher and strap it on.

His elbow was caught up in the strap, and pinched horribly; it hurt me to see that already he was treated like a piece of meat, only not so carefully, having no intrinsic value.  At the very least it was disrespectful.  I bounded forward and started to pull his arm out, and was intercepted by the undertaker, who did it for me but was visibly miffed.  Fuck him.

As they took him away the man in black explained to my mother that they would not be taking him “over the mountain” to Johnson City, the nearest crematorium, until they had assembled “a few” (to make it worth the trip, I suppose), so it would not be the next day or perhaps the next.  Jews are normally buried within 24 hours of death, but since he was to be cremated, what’s the difference?  All of our customs were going up in smoke anyway, so why not that one too?

My mother won that round.  It was what he wanted, it’s in his will, they are not Orthodox, he did not want to be eaten by worms/beetles/what-have-you, and We Believe In Cremation.

Jews don’t cremate.  We believe that the soul needs the body as a kind of GPS cache, so it knows where it came from, at least in the month after death after which it ascends to its Heavenly Home.

And we believe that a part of the soul remains with the body, and will return to Jerusalem when the Messiah comes.

Burning the body deprives the soul of its orientation.  It has no place to rest in those vital thirty days, and it can get lost in the vast spiritual realms.

Not only that, but our enemies shoved us into ovens by the millions.  Do we really want to commemorate that by burning our dead?

I explained to her all these things.  She waxed romantic telling me how they had dreamed of the places where they would spread their ashes.

Where?  I asked.

Oh, um, you know, all those places……

The animal graveyard down at the bottom of the garden where all the pets are buried?  I volunteered.

Oh yes!  She brightened.  And maybe plant a tree, and sprinkle his ashes on it….


Culture is defined by rites-of-passage and by lifeways: food, weddings, and the rituals surrounding death.  Over and over in the Torah, we are commanded not to take on the customs of the surrounding nations.  We do not share their food, lest our children intermarry and take on the customs of foreigners.

Jews keep Kosher, have special wedding rituals, and have very specific funeral procedures.  None of these involve desecrating the body, living or dead.

For those of you whose culture prescribes or allows cremation, I do not write this to denigrate or offend you, for those are your customs and for you they are good.

For us, deviation from these customs means assimilation, and assimilation means the death of our living culture.

And in order to live properly, we must die and be properly buried.

Baruch Dayan ha’Emet.  Blessed Be The Righteous Judge.

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  1. John Beckerman

     /  October 6, 2014

    Deepest sympathies on your father’s passing.

  2. I love you so much sweetie, and my heart feels like it’s breaking into a million pieces — which gives me enough of an idea to know I don’t have even the faintest concept of what yours is feeling.

    I’m here, thinking of you, sending my love. You don’t have to comment back (which I know you know, but it helps me somehow to say it), just know my heart will be with you.

    • Thank you, love, I really appreciate you. On one hand, it makes me feel so good to know how much you care, and on the other, please put your heart back together again very soon, as you need it to keep pumping your blood around.

      • You’re the doctor. I do as you say. ♡

        But if I can do anything. . . It’s ridiculous in a way when I’m so far, but I am serious. Anything at all for you.

  3. im so sorry for your loss. i know how important he was to you, what a mentor he had always been. but i hope and believe that he will find peace now as he goes to heaven. i am sure god will find him, even if he was cremated.

    peace and love to you.

    • Thank you, Kat. I find comfort in your kind thoughts. I know he will find his way eventually, in his own time….maybe even now he is visiting various galaxies that he always wanted to visit when he looked up into the night sky when he still could…love back to you!

  4. Wishing him peace, and you, too sweetie. Sending you love and support. Death is so difficult to deal with. I think your mother should have been more mindful in what she chose to say. best to you hon, xoxo, ❤

    • Thank you so much, dear. I have received so much support from my family of choice which includes you, and it means so much to me. My mom is clueless, has always been clueless, and I can’t expect her to get a clue now…so I have to pull up my big-girl panties and soldier on, with the help of my precious friends.

  5. I send you my deepest condolences and keep you in my prayers as you grieve.

  6. My deepest condolences Laura. Wishing you peace and strength to deal with this immeasurable grief.

  7. You are truly in my thoughts. I pray for you a new day of peace and a blessed opportunity to find a channel for your pain. I know how hard this has been for you. It is evident in your blogging but you have been faithful to write and that can always be your medicine.

    • Thanks, Holly. You are right, that writing is my outlet and my medicine. A little Scotch to toast to Dad with isn’t bad either. He loved Scotch, so I send a blessing up in his merit, and enjoy a little taste of him.

  8. *hugs*

  9. It has been a long journey for you, Laura, and I am so so sorry for your loss. You obviously had a special relationship with your father, and I hope as time goes by, that will bring you some peace. Hugs.

  10. Midwestern Plant Girl

     /  October 7, 2014

    I wish you my deepest sympathies.
    Rememer the good times, all the things he taught you and know his love still is there for you.

  11. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m sending thoughts of peace for you and your family.

  12. I’m so sorry Laura, for your pain, grief, anger, agony and emptiness in a spot that was filled by your father!! I’m able to breathe freely for your dad, knowing he’s free of these earthly woes and is headed for Heaven!! May God wrap His arms around you and comfort you and guide you through this sad, lonely and difficult times!!

    All my love, thoughts and prayers to you,

    • Amen, Kathy. The fact that he died on Shabbat, that was also Yom Kippur, at dawn in a special year (the Shmitta year, where we are commanded to let the Land rest), are all signs that Heaven recognizes his special merits. I miss him but I know that he sailed right through Heaven’s gates and is now studying Torah in the Upstairs Study Hall. Thank you so much for your kind thoughts and prayers!

  13. And so, with this, another chapter has come to a close. I’m sorry for your loss, and wish for you comfort and strength in the coming days and weeks ahead. Blessings to you and yours. May your father rest peacefully, surrounded by your love.

  14. savemefrombpd

     /  October 7, 2014

    I wish you a long life.
    Baruch dayan ha’emet…

    May we ALL be dancing in Jerusalem when moshiach comes. We will have never felt such intense happiness as when we will be dancing together in Jerusalem with the third temple built. May it comes speedy in our times.We will all rejoice.

    My thoughts are with you L. And I send you my love and prayers from the holy city.

    • Thank you, dearest. Please wish me a long life l’maalah and not l’mata, because I can’t stand much more of this life. You know exactly what I mean. But I do want to have a looooong life learning in the Yeshiva shel Maala! I want to meet R’Akiva, and R’Shimon bar Yochai, and Bruria, and Devorah, and Ya’el, and of course the Imahot (OK, the Avot too), and of course see my father again. We even fantasized about being reincarnated together again! You never know. Amen to your brachot and just for your information, as soon as things settle down here (and maybe sooner than that) I will be IY”H returning b’machol ve’ugav to the Holy City, where I hope to make good on my promise to take you to Mouselline for the best gleeda in town!

      • savemefrombpd

         /  October 8, 2014

        Amen. Should you have a long life l’malla and not l’mata.

        It would definitely be cool to meet the tzadikim and tzadikot.. And it will happen!

        The Mouselline would be great…

        All in the right time.

  15. The Grundlands

     /  October 7, 2014

    Dearest Liebe, my heart is with you lending strength to yours in its pain. May Hashem comfort you and remind you that there’s lots of love in this world for you that far outweighs anything else. xo, sr

  16. Kelley

     /  October 8, 2014

    I am so sorry for your loss. My father died three years ago from a pulmonary aneurism after breaking his hip in a nursing home. My mother, a narcissist, had refused to allow someone to sit with him. I had a premonition that he would die alone in his hospital bed, unable to comprehend the call button. I was okay with him dying, as much as I could be. I just didn’t want him to die alone. Which he did the next night. I would have lived at his bedside, heck I would have helped him die as he begged me to when he knew what was coming and still had most of his faculties, but I have a son who needs me. Oh, and yes, I have Bipolar too. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I understand your pain as much as anyone can, on this earth. Sending love and prayers. And thank you for all your posts. Kelley

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Thank you, Kelley. I cannot imagine your pain at not being able to be with your father when he was dying. I know that there is no going back to do death over, so it must be so hard for you. I hope that time will heal at least some of the pain that you feel. My father also could not manage or even conceive of the call button, so whenever he was alone, he had to wait for the nurses to check on him, and then he got to where he couldn’t even speak. It is so heartbreaking to know that even though you wanted so badly to help, you were prevented from doing so. I know it isn’t much (or any!) comfort, but if it was out of your hands, you had your hands tied, and I know that your father also knows that it was in your heart to help him, and he treasures your intention.

  17. I had missed this blog and directly read the next. I understand your point of view about the death rites. For us cremation is important with Chandan sticks and pure gheee ( clarified butter ) added to the pyre, these days things have switched over to electric and diesel incinerators. I marvel at Parsis, the Zoroastrians who have a burial system where vultures eat the dead. For Hindus it is one of the worst deaths only exception of a martyr who died on a battlefield. I think in ‘Kaliyug’ things will change and as the deep Vedic philosophy puts it every soul,s journey is fixed from the womb it is being conceived , to the death it meets and the way the body is cared after the death.

    Peace to the soul and strength to all the near and dear ones.

    • Amen to your blessing, Ashu! I am sorry to hear that the traditional funeral pyre is gone. Death rituals are a core that holds cultures together. Once that core piece is abandoned, for whatever reason, a large chip is taken out of the culture. I have always admired the Hindu death rites because they show such huge respect for the body of the departed, in spite of the fact that the soul no longer resides in the body. It’s like the house of a beloved relative that is no longer occupied an must be torn down. Do we do that with laughter and crude jokes? I would hope that we would do it with reverence, meditating on the life of the departed and telling stories about him or her that are especially meaningful to us.

    • Ugh, I did not know that Zoroastrians did that. There are some Native Americans whose funeral practices are to put the body on a platform up in a tree and let the carrion birds and animals eat the flesh. I guess that works for them! For us (Jewish people), the correct burial practice is to wrap the deceased in their own (or their husband’s, if it is a woman) prayer shawl and put the body on a litter, then slide the body off the litter into the grave, and the close relatives, friends, and teachers then put the dirt back onto the grave. Before the body is buried, it is purified by a special group of people, the Chevra Kadisha, which means Sacred Group. All body orifices are sewn shut after being cleaned, then the entire body is washed by pouring water over it in a special ritual way. Only after it is dried is it wrapped in the prayer shawl and buried within 24 hours of death. It is a kind of death ritual that makes it very real and final, gives a sense of closure. I found a bit of that when I was washing my father’s body immediately after his death. It was kind of creepy, to tell the truth, but it has helped me to really understand that he is totally, irrevocably dead, and he will not just show up in the living room watching TV or something. I think the old practice of the funeral pyre, Chandan dhoop and ghee (I make my own ghee, by the way–it is very expensive to buy ghee here, and very easy to make, of course, but I cannot imagine the amount that it would take for a funeral pyre) is wonderful, and I am sad to hear that it has gone by the wayside. So many things go that way! My Guru says that in Kaliyug of course we will know the reasons for everything. It is very much like the Jewish concept of time and revelation.

  18. Hi Laura, such an enlightening comment. I never knew about Jewish burial system in detail.

    We need almost two to three kgs of pure ghee, some chandan sticks and other fire wood, and main fuel is cow dung cakes (Kande in Hindi). Thankfully this is not gone completely but in big cities almost 30 percent of the population uses electric and diesel incinerators.

    I for one would want to donate my body organs after I die so that atleast somewhere I am being useful even when I am no more. The rest of the body should be cremated the Vedic way. But then we do not know how and when we may die and who all is there to take care of the final rites.

    How is your mother doing?

    Take care
    Laura (especially of your back problem)


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