“I got a weird notice from our Jewish funeral home,” began the daughter of a hospice patient who I will call Donna. I was on the phone with her because she had asked for a rabbi on our hospice staff. “They have those dinners, you know, where they try to get you to prepay?” I thought to myself, no, I didn’t know they did that! She continued, “And what confused me is the paper they gave me that said ‘burials or cremations.’ How could a Jewish funeral home be offering cremations? Anyway, that’s what I want. But I don’t know what to do.”
I responded, “You mean because that’s against Jewish law?” (After the phone call, I checked, and yes, some Jewish funeral homes offer cremation, with at least some requiring procedures such as burial of the ashes.)
“Yes,” said Donna. “My mom taught Hebrew school, tutored students for their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, was very active. But I want something in my house to look at and remember her after she’s gone. I want to put her ashes in an urn and have it where I can see it.”
So here she was, conflicted about following Jewish law and following her needs as a mourner. When I face a dilemma like that, I try to be creative. “I wonder,” I suggested, “if there is some other thing you could display on the mantelpiece that would be distinctive and remind you of your mom? That way you could still have a traditional burial. What about something she made, like an embroidery, or something she wrote or painted, or something she owned. Maybe clothing?” Donna said no to each one. She definitely did not want the obvious one of photos, because “that would be the same as what I had before Mom died.” I was running out of suggestions. Now what? I kept on thinking, and I had to think fast, because Donna was in distress and I did not want to leave her empty handed. Also, “dead time” (pardon the pun?) on a phone is almost as bad as on the radio.
..Ahh, now I got it. I reflected on how some mourners bring or order some soil from Jerusalem to place into the grave during a funeral, which led me to a related concept: “Donna, what do you think of taking some of the dirt they dig up to prepare your mother’s grave, putting it in an appropriate container like a jar of some kind, and taking that to put in your home?” Donna warmed up to the idea, especially when I added for good measure that she could get some dirt from Jerusalem and add some of it to the grave, and some to the sample that she would be taking home. Success! No conflict between remembering and feeling closer to a deceased loved one and between being an observant Jew. No tug-of-war for her between “Honoring thy mother and father” and honoring Judaism as her mother had done. We had hit pay dirt.
Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. Besides submitting multiple entries published in Expired And Inspired, she has her own blog, offbeatcompassion.com, where you can read more stories and reflections like this one.
(C) 2019 Kavod v’Nichum