The green tent was set up over the grave, but the visitors had not yet arrived. I drove around in the hot rain (my air conditioning was not working), taking a few pictures here and there. Landscaping is sparse, a small red azalea bush in bloom here and there. It is spring, a time for rebirth. Old headstones, cracked, lying on the ground. Har Nebo is an expansive cemetery, Philadelphia’s oldest privately-owned Jewish cemetery, which dates back to 1890.
The rain began again, almost as heavily as before. Since I was standing near the edge of the tent, my pant legs were soaking wet. The rabbi invited the two relatives closest to the deceased (brother and sister), to drop a scoop of mud onto the casket. It is tradition at Jewish burials to throw a scoop of dirt onto the casket before it is lowered into the grave. My friend and his sister declined. They may have done it, had the dirt not turned to mud, but maybe not. When my wife’s grandmother buried her son, she declined to throw the dirt as well. Sure, its part of the ceremony, and it is symbolic – but not just symbolic. You’re literally helping to bury the person. You’re throwing the first shovelful of dirt onto the casket in the grave. Throwing that scoop of dirt on a loved one’s casket must be an incredibly difficult task. Like Moses descending from Mount Nebo after his final look at the Promised Land, never to see it again in his lifetime.