The Past Isn’t Buried

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I’m catching up on the last season of one of my favorite shows, Friday Night Lights, and in an episode I recently watched, one of the characters reacted to his father’s sudden death. Aside from the trauma that one can pretty much always assume comes with a parent’s death, this guy’s dad was kind of a jerk. Not a bad person, but not a good father, either.

At the end of the episode we watch the graveside funeral, and when the funeral everyone leaves except the son, who stays while the guys from the cemetery begin to pile the dirt back into the grave. The guy takes off his suit jacket, picks up a shovel, and begins piling the dirt into the grave himself. The implication is that he needs to bury his father, and his animosity towards his father at the same time. It’s really a beautiful scene, and it made me think about the Jewish tradition that mandates that the relatives of the deceased bury their loved one themselves.

I have read many explanations of this tradition, and of how healing and important it can be. Seeing it on screen, it did look healing. It worked, cinematically, but all I could think was that in my experience, it isn’t like that.

My mother died in August, and it was warm outside at her burial. Not too hot, but not cold. There were about fifty people who followed us to the cemetery from the funeral, and after the short graveside service, my family and I began with the ceremonial shoveling of dirt into the grave. Here’s how MJL explains the burial procedure:

According to one custom, mourners use the back of the shovel at first, to demonstrate reluctance. In some communities, each mourner replaces the shovel back in the earth rather than hand it from one person to the next–a practice probably born of the idea that death is somehow contagious. However, others find it comforting to give the spade to the next person, acknowledging the shared nature of the task.

After the immediate family has symbolically buried their loved one, others come forward to take a turn with the shovel….

Posted on February 2, 2011
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