Shiva Limbo

by Brian on April 6, 2009

in A Parent in Israel,Jewish Holidays and Culture

The most disconcerting thing about my trip to the U.S. for my father’s funeral was the “pre-shiva” period (known in Hebrew as aninut).

Shiva is the seven days stipulated by Jewish tradition for mourning following burial. My father died on a Sunday. But the funeral didn’t take place until Wednesday.

The official reason was that it took time to process all the paperwork. The cemetery wouldn’t start digging a grave until they had an official death certification. But doctors generally don’t work on Sunday, so we had to wait until Monday and then it took until the end of the day to get everything processed.

In the meantime, my mother, my brother and his wife, and I found ourselves in a kind of a limbo. Dad was dead but the formal shiva didn’t start for two more days. What were we supposed to do? No one quite knew.

Should we be all happy and normal? Maybe go shopping? I’m not near a big American mall all that often and I needed some new jeans. Would a quick trip to Sears be inappropriate? My mother suggested a movie. She had a video from Netflix she had to return. Eventually we settled on a board game. My father loved games.

Mind you, it’s not like we didn’t have anything to do. I arrived Monday afternoon and within a few hours we had met with Rabbi George Schlesinger from Congregation Beth Ami, the local Conservative synagogue. He was wonderful, able to bridge my brother and mother’s less observant world and my more traditional concerns.

On Tuesday morning we dealt with the funeral preparations.

Carol, our funeral home “salesperson” (for lack of a better term), was as personable and chipper as could be under the circumstances. “Hello and welcome to Daniel’s Chapel of the Roses Funeral Home and Crematory,” she burst out with an ear-to-ear smile. “We’re here to help you with everything you need.” And then, while patting my mother on the shoulder, she added “Oh, so sorry for your loss. Now let’s take care of business,” she exclaimed, returning back to perky persona.

Despite her abundantly outgoing nature, Carol was patient and professional as she explained to us how the funeral home itemizes everything into products and services. “Services” include caring for the body, refrigeration and transport. The main “product” is the casket which is jarringly priced like a holiday sale in a clothing store – for example, $1,595…plus California sales tax of 8.5%, for a total of $1722.60.

The caskets can cost up to nearly $7,000 for a deluxe model made out of steel and mahogany. Now, Daniel’s isn’t a Jewish funeral home – there are none in the small Northern California town of Santa Rosa where my parents live – but there is a corner containing several plain pine caskets appropriate for a traditional Jewish burial.

My mother was already reeling from the price of the funeral – the total eventually came out to close to $8,000. “We’ll take that one,” she told Carol, pointing at the perfectly acceptable basic model.

Next stop was Santa Rosa Memorial Park. Tim, the cemetery guy, had the same demeanor as Carol – charming and upbeat, a quiet “so sorry” and a pat on the shoulders, then down to work. I suppose it couldn’t be any other way. If you spent all day sporting a deliberately dour expression, you’d quickly go mad.  

We drove to the small Jewish section where our task here was to pick out Dad’s plot. Did we prefer a location near the bench or the tree? How about next to the road?

The biggest issue was whether Mom would buy two plots or one. She had long held that she wanted to be cremated – only $1,695 plus an urn starting at $80, according to the 8-page Daniel’s price list. Now she wasn’t so sure. There was a discount on the second plot if you “pre-pay.” It was all so much, coming at us at a time when we scarcely in the frame of mind to make these types of eternal business decisions.

One other comment from Tim: all graves in California are required by law to be lined and covered with concrete, something that’s frowned upon by Jewish tradition because it prevents the grave from being filled in entirely with earth. The reason? Flooding. A few years back there were some intense rains and a number of coffins residing in a cemetery built on a hill went sliding down into the backyards of local residents.

We went home and had lunch, but my day wasn’t done yet. I had missed seeing Dad before he died. Now, I decided I wanted to see Dad in the funeral home. I had asked the rabbi if that was halachic – he said there was no clear direction as not much had been written about the subject in Jewish literature – but I knew I needed to say goodbye in person.

Dad was lying on a bed in the corner of a large room. There was a curtain, couches and flowers. He was alone – no shomerim to guard over him (they would come that night as part of the services provided by the local chevra kadisha). Dad’s face looked much more gaunt than when I’d last seen him at my brother’s wedding a year and a half ago. He wasn’t wearing his glasses.

I started to talk to Dad, at first in a whisper, but steadily I gained the confidence to speak in an almost conversational tone. Tears flowed down my face as I reviewed his life, our times together, his challenges and his successes.

As I walked out, I kept turning back, filling up another tissue. I’d reach for the door, then turn again. I knew once I walked out, I would never see Dad again. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

By the time the funeral was held the next morning, I was more composed. It was an entirely “kosher” funeral. We did everything you’re “supposed” to do – tearing kri’ah (or ripping a garment), saying Kaddish and walking out between two lines.

We returned to my mother’s house and began the shiva. A friend of my mom brought over a tray of cheese and crackers, bagels and fruit. Another made brownies. Many residents from the retirement community where my parents moved 9 months ago stopped in to pay their condolences. A surprising number of my friends made the hour and a half trip up from Berkeley. Later in the day, Rabbi Schlesinger came back to lead an egalitarian minyan for Ma’ariv (the evening prayer) where we said Kaddish again.

It was clear that there would be no more formal shiva the next day. People were already moving on. My brother had generously offered to go through paperwork with my mother and to set her up on the computer (Dad had always handled all the email communication). Mom had started negotiating with the retirement community management to secure a smaller apartment.

But I wanted to sit a complete seven-day shiva. I didn’t want to work. Going for a run didn’t seem right. What would I do all day? There are only so many hours you can surf the Internet.

It’s become traditional for members of our community in Jerusalem to try to “finish” shiva at home with friends and family, even if just for a few days. I wanted to honor Dad’s memory by telling stories about his life to our friends waiting in Israel.

Plus my family needed me. Jody had been fighting pneumonia the entire time I was gone, and the kids were quite broken up over the loss of their grandfather. I re-booked my ticket and headed out at 4:00 AM for the drive back to the airport and a morning flight.

I felt guilty about leaving so quickly. My mother was stoic – “don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK, I’ll sit here in the dark.” OK, she didn’t say the last line, but you get the point.

And my mother is in a good place. She has tons of new friends in the retirement community. It’s a very upscale place. My brother calls it the “cruise ship.” There’s a small library, a private movie theater with plush leather chairs and popcorn, a fitness center and even a man-made lake with paddle boats. Instead of an ordinary dining hall, there’s a restaurant with waiters, menus, daily specials and an executive chef. And there are tons of trips and activities – visits to museums and the theater. Last month they went to the City to see Wicked.

Dad loved it too. One of the saddest things is that he only got to be there for 9 months. On the other hand, his last months were very good ones.

When I was saying my goodbye to Dad in the funeral home, I found myself trying to make some sense of it all. He looked so singular, so disconnected in death. But then I began to imagine him differently. A part of something bigger. It’s kind of cliché to say that if Dad wasn’t there, neither would my brother or I be around. But it’s true. Dad was his own person of course. But he was also a critical link in the continuity of the Jewish people. Dad was the result of 4,000 years of Jewish history. And his children will be responsible for the next 4,000…this time in Israel.

I don’t know if Dad – a proud Jew but never one who yearned to visit the Holy Land – would have seen it that way. But it gave me some peace, some closure. Maybe that’s what’s meant by the phrase traditionally said to the bereaved, “may you be comforted by the mourners of Zion.”

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