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.