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Prompted By Final Farewell

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With each loss, I’ve learned. In addition to the emotional pain and healing process, there were valuable insights gained from the “death rituals” that helped me, an understanding of what didn’t help, and revelations about my own quirks and preferences. For me, there likely will be a role for fire and water.

While at first I didn't relish the extra burden, the experience turned out to be a gift.

Two of my grandparents and an aunt died when I was young, and I wasn’t involved directly other than attending the funerals. My first real experience with decisions about death came when my mother-in-law at the time became terminally ill. My then-husband’s family began to fall apart quickly, because my mother-in-law was the glue that held the family together. I had to step in and deal with hospice, her death, and her funeral arrangements.

While at first I didn’t relish the extra burden, the experience turned out to be a gift. I was close enough to my mother-in-law to care about her but not be paralyzed by grief, so I intimately experienced what was involved. I learned I could deal with a lot more than I expected, but there was one thing that freaked me out. I went with my father-in-law to the funeral home to select a coffin. When I entered a room full of empty coffins, I almost blacked out.

My claustrophobia had kicked in. Later I remembered another time my claustrophobia kicked in, at the funeral of a friend’s father, when instead of doing a burial in the ground, they raised the coffin and placed it in a slot in a very tall wall. It looked like a safe deposit box being replaced in a bank vault and felt very creepy.

In 2001, when my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, there was time to plan and say goodbye. I was able to cut back my business to be very involved in his care for about two months, and we brought him home from his final hospital visit to make him comfortable. My father and my mom chose cremation through the Neptune Society. This group arranges the cremation and schedules the family for a scattering of the ashes in certain approved sites in San Francisco Bay. My father loved California and particularly the waters of the bay.

My father died on the first night of Hanukkah, which was December 9 that year. Given the time of year, my father’s non-observant status, and that we had very few close relatives in the area, we did not sit shiva. Instead, right before Christmas, my mother, brother and family, a cousin, and I went to San Francisco and got on a small Neptune Society boat. It was was rainy and blustery. There was supposed to be another family with us, but they didn’t show because of the weather, so we motored out near Baker Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge to scatter my father’s ashes. Tears were on our cheeks, mixed with raindrops.

On January 9, we held a lovely memorial celebration for my father, with many of his friends attending. I chose the date deliberately because it marked “Sh’loshim,” 30 days after a death, when life returns to normal. The event gave closure to a difficult time and helped me start to move on.

So what have I learned about what works for me? Jewish rituals work really well. Even though we didn’t sit shiva for my father, shivas have presented me an opportunity to comfort the families of others and remember the person who has died. I have attended two Zoom shivas since the pandemic, and while not the same as being there in person, they were an opportunity for connection. I wish there were a formal ritual for Sh’loshim, but there isn’t. I’m glad we acknowledged that time for my father. Saying Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer, is meaningful to me, although not as much for the others in my family.

What would I want for my final farewell? I haven’t formulated the details, but given my claustrophobic experiences, I’m strongly leaning toward cremation, to being symbolically released rather than confined to a space. And, since I love the water as much as my father did, I hope to have my ashes scattered somewhere in the sea.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Marian, I too find the Jewish rituals surrounding death to be wise and very sound – we are instructed to “sit shiva“, but after a week we “stand up from shiva”, we’re given permission and direction to get on with our lives.

    In fact I wrote about my own spiritual experience at my uncle Sol’s shiva in my Retro story MINYAN.
    Thanx for sharing your insights!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Like you, I had to learn about what was meaningful to me through experience, much of which was negative. I agree that rituals are very helpful. Every religion has then, but I agree that shiva and reciting Kaddish can help to bring closure and celebrate the life of someone you loved.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Marian, I am so glad for you that the Jewish rituals have, ultimately, given you strength and celebration to these sad and often difficult events. And that is not even counting your claustrophobia — oy, vey! Definitely opt for some beautiful wide open spaces — a sea or, at the least (as per my mom), a tennis court.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, John, my claustrophobic reaction to the coffins came as a surprise after everything else I’d been through, so I’m listening to that message. Water would be my first choice, but any pretty open area would do. Maybe a grass court a la Wimbledon?

  4. Suzy says:

    Marian, I can relate to so much of what you described so well. But I’m surprised that you say there isn’t a formal ritual for Shloshim, because in my synagogue there is. When I went to see my rabbi after my mother died, and I could barely finish a sentence without bursting into tears, I told her that I couldn’t deal with shiva. She was the one who told me about having a Shloshim service instead, so that is what I did. It was the right time for me, and it was very healing.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Marian, thank you for sharing all those reactions to various rituals and experiences throughout your life. When My father-in-law passed away in FL, I went with my husband here in Boston to look for coffins, since he’d be brought back here, to the place of his birth and we held the shiva at our house. I had never looked in the back of funeral homes before. I didn’t have the same reaction as you (perhaps here they weren’t in quite as small a space), but there were quite a variety to pick from and my husband just wanted simple (though not the pine box).

    We even know of the Neptune Society here. A close friend’s parents signed up in FL, but it took the timing out of her hands. She had to wait for the Society to take care of everything before she got the ashes, which she then buried in a Jewish cemetery (it surprised me that this was allowed, but I guess in some they are).

    I agree that Judaism does map out rituals in a healing, sensible way that helps the mourner get through the process. And I think it is great that you’ve started making decisions about what will make sense for you. Best to know yourself.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy, and I’m glad that you didn’t have the same reaction as I about the coffins. I’ve never been to a funeral with an open casket and hope I never have to attend one. My understanding is that some of the more liberal rabbis and Jewish institutions have re-interpreted the laws to allow urns to be buried, partly because of sensitivity to ecological issues. Recently (alas, I’ve been to a lot of cemeteries in the last few years), I’ve seen a mix of standard graves and urn burials. I think this is a really good compromise and might help people make a decision that is comfortable for them.

  6. Risa Nye says:

    One of the kindest things my parents ever did was to make all their funeral arrangements ahead of time. We never had to go shopping for caskets or anything. My sister and I were so thankful we didn’t have to do any of that. We bought a niche for my sister at the local cemetery, and since it was available, the double-size one next to her. I hope someday (not too soon!) my kids will appreciate this advance planning. I also appreciate the idea of shiva, and had not heard of Sh’loshim, so I learned something new!

    • Marian says:

      I agree, Risa, and my father’s planning eliminated the agony of making decisions while you are grieving. I really appreciated Sh’loshim because it allowed more time to pass and helped me venture out a bit and not get too “stuck” in a grieving stage.

  7. It is comforting to hear a story about helping someone successfully to “their final resting place.” You set the scene very well and the image of being out on the Bay is restful and beautiful.. Of course when we talk about a final passage being successful, we are speaking of its impact on us, the survivors,. So much to ponder.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Dale, and the survivors are left to ponder. It was so much better to know what my dad wanted than having to guess. I think he would have been amused at the weather on the water the day we scattered his ashes.

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