How many of you have someone who’s committed suicide? I can’t see you raise your hands or nod in agreement, but let’s presume, and I know it’s terrible to do this, but I don’t think outlandish to presume, so let’s say you have. You’ve either come to terms with it or not, I can’t change that or help you. I have no answers. The first time it happened to me was in high school and it was a friend of a friend who I’d met once named Alex. Because it was high school, I was confused and hurt by it, regardless of how tangentially it affected me. We were sixteen. Well, he was. I was fifteen, and it was astoundingly, terrifyingly final. I couldn’t decide on a color for my bed sheets. He decided not to live anymore. The confidence behind that decision still eludes me. It was maybe the third time one of my peers had died in my short little life, and because I was full of nonsense as a child, I took it too hard, and I thought about it too much. But I did not go to his funeral.
I’d never been to a Jewish funeral.
Alex was not Jewish. I’m from the Midwest, raised Catholic. We were all Catholic. I’ve been to funerals before, kind of a lot of them. I know the drill pretty well. Once I showed up to a Filipino Catholic funeral wearing black, thinking Catholic is Catholic. It’s not. They wear white, and although obviously there were bigger things on people’s minds- namely that my friend had just become an orphan- the sting of being so wrong at a time when everyone was raw and sensitive was deeply embarrassing. There’s something relieving about blending into the ritual that’s deeply comforting- that’s why humans do religions. Failing to meet those standards is a terrible sort of disappointment, even if I’m not a believer because I desperately want to believe, to give myself over to faith entirely. But I don’t know how.
My friend Max killed himself on August 26th, 2013. I don’t have anything to add for why, other than my first reaction to the news was to call the move “classic Max.” I was angry. Give me a few seconds to think about it and I can still be angry. Very angry. Max is Jewish, in the way that all the Jewish people I know are Jewish. In the way that I am Catholic. We were once, but we are not these things anymore. Yet, when we die, these are the rituals people will follow to bury us.
Remembering the self-loathing that followed the Filipino funeral mistake, and knowing that my anger would be unwelcome and inappropriate at his funeral, I thought the best way to attend would be to know each step as well as I knew the Catholic steps. So, without historical context, here are the things I learned:
The family, who are called the mourners, are not to be approached before the service. They have an ambassador who addresses the funeral attendees. There is a curtain you should not go behind. The service itself is laid out in the familiar fashion: the rabbi comes out, says a few things, then the eulogies, then the procession, then burial.
There is no open casket. There is no viewing.
But there is the burial.
In Catholic cemeteries, the groundskeeper does the burying. Sometimes people throw flowers, or sprinkle dirt over the casket. You stand at the edge and think your thoughts and then you walk away and get brunch. At this Jewish funeral, at most Jewish funerals, the grieving bury the dead. “Because they cannot do it for themselves,” whatever link I clicked from Wikipedia stated for me, “it is considered the ultimate kindness.”
I think about that all of the time.
So we lined up, two by two, taking a bit of dirt from one pile, adding it over either his head or his toes. I’d never held a shovel before. I’m a city girl, a princess, a baby, whatever. I was in heels, on grass, in 100 degree heat, crying, sweating, angry, so angry, holding a clutch, in a line of strangers, looking at a shovel, watching people pick it up, hold it. Thinking about how the first time I will hold a shovel is when I have to bury a boy. My friend went before me, putting a little into the center and walking away. She didn’t grab my clutch, so I tucked it under my arm, not thinking that shoveling required both arms to have a full range of motion. The shovel was heavier than I’d anticipated. My heels sunk into the grass, I remember my face flushing, embarrassed that I had already taken as long as I had. I couldn’t scoop enough dirt because I was trying to do it with one arm, since my clutch was under my other arm. Lopsidedly, I tossed the equivalent of a third of a handful of dirt over Max. Because there was a line, I did not go back for more. I passed the shovel to the griever behind me. A third of a handful of dirt. Hardly an ultimate kindness.
I walked back down to meet the rest of the people I knew. James laughed at me, “You looked like you didn’t know what you were doing up there.” I told him the truth and he laughed harder, “They were made for this.” Shovels are for burying. Rituals are for comforting. Humans are for dying. So it goes.