The Past Isn’t Buried

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….

So I took the shovel–in my memory I went first, but I bet it was actually my dad–and did what I knew was customary, and I hated it. People say we do it so that we’re forced to accept that the person is really dead and buried–so that we won’t irrationally pretend they might still be alive somewhere. But I was with my mother when she died, and in the months before, as she slowly drifted away. I never had any delusions that she might not really be dead. But throwing dirt on top of her when just days before I had been carefully bathing her, feeding her, singing to her–it seemed horrifically cruel and disrespectful.

After my family each had a turn the other people took turns, and when everyone had taken a turn, I just wanted to go home. But no, there was still an enormous mound of dirt to be shoveled. I watched my teenage cousins roll up the sleeves of their nice shirts, their fancy shoes caked with dirt as they hefted soil in a steady rhythm.

For unknown reasons the cemetery had provided small bottles of water and breath mints on every chair. I busied myself with the breath mint, but behind me my grandmother was having a long involved conversation with someone. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember wanting to wheel around and slap her for no real reason. I sought out my oldest friend–we were born in the same hospital, twelve hours apart, our basinets next to each other on that very first night of our lives, our mothers best friends–and huddled in his shadow. I watched the burying go on, and then I turned away, leaning into his chest, willing the day to un-happen. I felt flickers of rage and exhaustion, and closed my eyes.

So much of that week of shiva faded away with time, but that moment has stayed with me–vivid and painful. It was the first time I realized that a Jewish tradition that I had thought I would like actually horrified me.

It’s something I don’t think about a lot because most Jewish traditions that I observe, or that I see regularly, don’t horrify me. There are some I find unpleasant–I don’t like sitting behind a mechitza, for instance, and I don’t like going to the mikvah–but not many that I really hate. Some of the stranger mitzvoth are just strange (everything on Sukkot, for instance) and some of the unpleasant ones don’t seem so outrageous to me because I grew up in a community where they were normal. But when something in your religious tradition gives you a visceral horrific reaction–what do you do with that? Where do you go?

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