How do we console when our traditional behaviors and rituals are unavailable to us?
Today I was one of seven people to attend the funeral of a family elder, someone who was a source of love and joy throughout my life. He was ninety one, and dementia had taken much of him from us long ago. His was a more familiar end of life than our fears take us to these days. Sad for me. Devastating for his son. If he had died a month ago, when we began planning, his funeral would have felt familiar.
Passing when he did, his funeral will remain one of the most intense memories of my life. Never have I experienced a service heartbreaking in the way that this was. At the same time, never have I attended one so heartwarming.
Stay at home policy in Maryland dictates that funerals are graveside only, with ten attendants or less, standing far apart from one another. We were six attendees, encircling the grave with about ten feet between mourners. Only two of us were under eighty. The rabbi did a lovely job, referencing the current situation while not allowing it to take over. Then he invited us to speak, which every one of us did. From our distant slots we remembered him, and in ways it became a conversation more than a series of eulogies. Intimate in unfamiliar ways.
When it was time to bury him, as Jewish tradition dictates, the familiar shovel was absent. Today we buried him with our hands. Not all the way, of course, but enough to represent the many people who weren’t able to attend. It felt—gritty. Visceral. I held my breath as elderly mourners stooped, gathered earth, and dropped it on the casket. Helping could endanger them. I felt much further than my ten or fifteen feet away. And also so much closer.
When it was time for Kaddish, additional mourners were taken off mute to contribute to the quarum of ten people required to make a Minyan and fulfill the tradition. In this moment, I was acutely aware of generation upon generation of Jews, conducting these same rituals as best they could. Through persecution and distance and yes, plague. Never have I felt so connected with my ancestors.
...and then it was over, normally the time of handshakes and hugs. Of mutual comfort. How to express with words what we are used to expressing with an embrace? A kiss? Holding a head to our chest while a wave of sorrow is shared? I could find no words. I dug through my repertoire of gestures and offered the only physical offering I could find: A deep bow, a remnant of my years of martial arts training. Scant support, I’d imagine, but I think my cousin understood.
All that was left then was to walk away. Walk to my car while the rest of the mourners—his son, his brother—walked to theirs. Each of us alone in our experience. No meal, no quiet laughter over photographs. Grief without touch.
Photo credit: Gabriel Jimenez