Friday, June 13, 2014

Funeral in the Rain

I arrived at the cemetery half an hour before the service was to begin. I planned my trip this way partly because I had never been to this cemetery (and was not sure how to get there) and partly because I was curious to check it out). My friend’s father died and he was being buried today. It was pouring. The service was to be held at 2:30 pm in Har Nebo, a large Jewish cemetery in northeast Philadelphia.

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.

After about ten minutes I saw headlights at the cemetery entrance. The guests (?? attendees? mourners?) and grave attendants began to arrive. Next the silver hearse. As there appeared to be no chapel, I assumed this was to be a graveside ceremony. I parked my car along the road and got out with my coat and umbrella. It was pouring. The grave site was along Shalom Drive in the cemetery. "Shalom" is the Hebrew word meaning "peace." It was far from peaceful here that day, with the wind and the rain.

After saying hello to my friend and his wife, I went under the green tent. The rabbi was the only person there. This would be a small service, with about fifteen people. Small family. Some friends. I said hello to the Rabbi and she said, “The sky is crying.

If you think I took pictures during the ceremony, I am sorry to disappoint you. That would not have been respectful. Some things need to be kept private. People began to come in out of the rain. The wooden casket was brought from the hearse and placed onto the metal support frame over the grave. The wind howled and blew the rain in on the assembled. My friend’s yarmulke blew off and flew out of the tent onto the nearby grass. I retrieved it for him. Rain speckled the casket’s rich wood surface with its Star of David design on top. The prayers began. Oddly, the wind and rain died down for the entire length of the half-hour ceremony.

When the deceased was still alive last month, his son (my friend) gave me his “first alert” type device to try with my Mom, since I felt she could use one after falling and breaking her hip (read more about that here). His Dad had used it for a few months before being admitted to a hospice. So although I did not know the deceased personally, I certainly felt connected to him. Not only because of the “first alert,” but also because, supposedly, he developed a taste for beer during the last few months he was alive!

The rabbi said a few things about the departed, based on sparse facts gained from family and friends. Typical stuff. Then the grandson read a eulogy he had written, a remembrance of his grandfather. He was sorry he hadn’t made more frequent visits to see his grandfather while away at college. Very difficult for him. Regrets. Tears all around. He got through it like a trooper, though. Afterward, the rabbi sang a mournful dirge. She quoted some passage about the departed not being gone, just in “another room,” and that we can all honor his memory when we continue to do the things he enjoyed doing with us. The recurring theme was that this gentleman put everyone’s needs ahead of his own.

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.

I drove out of the cemetery in the rain, taking a few pictures here and there.

Further Reading:
Read more about Philadelphia's Har Nebo Cemetery at this link.