The day my son’s ashes arrived in the mail – the forward
The ashes arrived at my home in Maryland from Southern California, shipped by special delivery from the aptly named Ashes to Ashes funeral home. They arrived wrapped in a rectangular, polished, dark wood box the size of a loaf of artisan bread. I immediately opened it to make sure it wasn’t empty. It was not.
The child I loved, worried and cried for over 54 years was physically reduced to a powdery dark gray substance. I remembered a beach of fine black sand.
How could this be my Brady? But it was.
Brady had passed away three weeks earlier. Cancer killed him after a three-year struggle. In accordance with his request, he was cremated rather than buried, the usual route of bodily elimination for Jews, even secularists.
Inside the box, in a protective plastic bag, was some of Brady’s ashes (the rest went to his widow and a brother), as if they had been finely crushed and strained to separate the fragments. unscrupulous bones, or whatever. could survive the fire and remind me that it was once a human being and my son.
Handling your child’s ashes arouses the ultimate parental pain. For me, it also triggered an exploration of my feelings about death and cremation. In short, it sparked a conflict between my Jewish DNA and the non-traditional Jewish views to which I am now drawn.
Jews like me are not used to the after-effects of cremation. I had only seen body ashes once, decades ago. This experience did not elicit any of the emotions I felt upon receiving Brady’s Ashes. Maybe because that first time was the ashes of someone I didn’t love anymore and who hurt me deeply once, Brady’s mother.
The Jews have always been the kind of burial, stretching back, we are told, to Abraham and his purchase from the cemetery of the Cave of the Patriarchs in modern Hebron. Burial is embedded in our cultural makeup. I always intend to end up in a hole in the ground next to my wife, as this is what I was raised to expect and revere.
Cemeteries exude a spiritual quality to me. I feel heightened energy by visiting a transpersonal, transpersonal connection to the continuum of life. The cemetery doesn’t have to be Jewish for me to feel that way. A large military cemetery will do.
However, the energy of a Jewish cemetery, especially a historical one, connects me to my history, to my family, to my people, to the very heart of my being. I take advantage of this feeling of dread.
I vividly remember going through this while visiting a four century old and poorly maintained Jewish cemetery in the small Ukrainian town of Chechelnik during the last days of the Soviet Union. On the hot summer day I visited, the waist-deep grasses and wildflowers reflected the late afternoon sun. Swarms of delicate white butterflies floated. It was magical.
I felt a similar awe amid the tangled headstones in Prague’s historic old Jewish cemetery, just as I did in the neglected old Jewish cemetery in Leipzig, the German city my in-laws fled to escape the Nazis.
I also feel it deeply every time I visit my parents’ graves in the century-old Beth David Cemetery on Long Island. Buried in some of the graves of a quarter of a million are all four of my grandparents, several aunts and uncles, distant cousins, and, far away, one of them holds the remains. by the brilliant comedic actor Andy Kaufman.
I am therefore predisposed to the underground disposal of human remains. But like I said, my adult son went for cremation and I didn’t question his decision, not that it would have made a difference.
His decision reflected an end-of-life choice that more and more Jews are making, and that most of the unorthodox American Jewish religious hierarchy has come to accept, albeit reluctantly. Now it’s my turn.
Orthodox Jews, of course, remain strict on burial. Reinforcing this position is the traumatic memory of Nazi crematoriums, making cremation by choice so much more unpleasant for many.
But I am not Orthodox, and my son grew up as an adult with a cultural, but not religious, connection to his Jewishness. Knowing him the way I did, I’m sure the cheaper cost of cremation and his lack of long-term maintenance needs helped sway his decision.
I’m sure he also thought cremation was the most environmentally sound solution, although that’s not necessarily true. In January, California officials temporarily suspended air pollution rules governing the allowable number of monthly cremations due to the backlog of bodies caused by the state’s deaths from COVID-19.
Imagine that. Cremation contributes to the decrease in air quality. Our bodies are just another carbon-based pollutant.
Brady was one of those who benefited from the suspension of the settlement. Until that happened, his body had been in a cold room for weeks, waiting for its turn to be cremated. My mental image of him in a refrigerated container was almost as overwhelming as receiving his ashes.
Conservative Judaism – to which I am nominally attached through the dues I pay to the synagogue that I no longer attend regularly – now allows cremation. The same is true of the other theologically liberal movements of Judaism. A conservative rabbi friend told me that the movement chose to do this “because we had to accommodate the growing number of faithful doing this.”
The first conservative accommodation to my knowledge dates from 1986. It took the form of a Responsa published by the Rabbinical Assembly of the movement, entitled “Cremation in the Jewish tradition”. Obviously, the problem has been stirring the community for some time.
There are no reliable figures on the number of American Jews who currently choose cremation over burial. Overall, however, just under 50% of all Americans chose to be cremated rather than buried in 2019, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
Nor are there, it seems, any explicit prohibitions in the Hebrew Bible against cremation. Respect for the bodies of the dead is of course rooted in tradition. I learned this through my participation in a synagogue chevra kadisha ritually prepare male bodies for burial.
But it lacks a clear ban. Apparently funeral is more highly recommended minhag, or custom, that a biblical commandment closes. Some historians say the custom probably stems from our tribe’s ancient desire to preserve our ways by moving away from non-Jewish practices, with cremation being one of them.
I do not believe in any form of bodily resurrection, so in this regard, cremation is not a problem for me. Yet, as I said, my Jewish cultural ties remain strong; I will not eat pork or shellfish, for example.
And I’m a cinch for the ritual. Religious bells and whistles move me, regardless of the religion involved. A Jewish funeral can be a high ritual. Commercial cremation from which all mourners are excluded is certainly not.
But here’s what made me come to terms with Brady’s decision.
I am philosophically drawn these days to what you might call secularized Buddhist thought. It means being drawn to the psychological tactics of religion to skillfully deal with the circumstances and emotions that keep us trapped in mental confusion and pain. It also means giving up almost all of the deep theology of Buddhism because it is not culturally relevant to someone like me.
The key here are the teachings of non-attachment and impermanence.
In simple language, impermanence means that everything – the tangible and the intangible, the animate and the inanimate – is constantly evolving. Nothing stays the same, including us, however freezing the pace of change.
We are born, we age, we die. Our bodies change as we move from infancy to old age. We start off as a zygote and end up as rotting sacks of putrid fluids, gas, and bacteria. The script never varies. It won’t be for you, it won’t be for me, and it wasn’t for Brady.
So what is left other than a mental construct of the son I lost?
I don’t need to reconcile all of this with traditional Jewish thought. Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning a neo-Hasidic interpretation I heard in a recent Zoom class taught by Rabbi David Ingber, who heads the post-confessional romemu synagogue community in New York City.
“At first glance,” said Ingber, “there is a conflict between what the Buddha says about impermanence and what Jewish theology claims to be the basic structure of Torah, of God, and therefore of reality. . And yet change as a return to timeless impermanence, or ayin – “Nothingness” is part of the way the mystics of our tradition think about reality. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the mystical revivalism movement known as Hasidism, noted in Noach 12: 1, that “the rise / fall and all impermanence are central to the service of God.”
“In the Jew [rendering] of impermanence, everything returns to God, and from there is born. God is the Eternal One, and the place from which we, and all life, are born again. We use these teachings to learn to accept what disappears, because when it comes back it is different too.
Yes, my box of ashes is my son. Only his bodily form has changed, as all things inevitably do. Plus, he doesn’t smell like he would now if he were buried. This allows the box with Brady’s ashes to rest on a shelf an arm’s length from where I’m sitting writing this essay.
It’s not nothing. He is physically with me.
That his soul, his essence, his Neshama – whatever you imagine – is this close to me is another matter that I choose to leave for another time. For now, let’s just say my beliefs tend to be agnostic.
However, when I can visit Beth David Cemetery again, I have a plan. Between my parents’ adjoining graves, I’m going to dig a little hole and bury Brady’s ashes over there in the ground for them.
Ira Rifkin is a journalist and author of “Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval”. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland.
The opinions and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Forward.