Death and Dying

Posted on March 17, 2011


Author’s note:  I’ve been attending a 7th grade Hebrew class while they learn about Jewish death and burial customs and traditions.

My Grandaddy Jim died when I was 9 years old. But I still remember him every day. He was a wonderful man with a great sense of humor, love of books, and love of horses. I used to sit in his lap when I was little and watch him blow smoke rings with his pipe. One of the things I learned about him was that he did NOT want to be embalmed after he died. He wanted his body to return to dust, as the Bible says.

So I was very pleased today in Hebrew class when I discovered the Jewish tradition of using a wooden coffin and not embalming the body. I also found out that in Israel you are not buried in a coffin, but in a shroud covered by a sheet of some kind. Jewish caskets are always closed; I wish Christian funerals were the same. As the teacher said, and I agree, “I’ve never seen a dead person that looked ‘good’; they look dead.”

I like to remember people the way they were when I knew them, not as they appear in their casket. When my favorite great-Aunt Janie died, I didn’t plan on going up with the family and friends to “view” the body after the service and before the burial. That did NOT look in any way like my dear aunt with all that makeup and fancy hairstyling. But a well-meaning neighbor of hers apparently thought I needed “support” and took my arm, stating she would go with me.

Now this was a big woman, nearly six feet tall and built like a linebacker. I didn’t want to make a scene, and wasn’t sure I could get away from her anyway. So I proceeded by the casket just like everyone else. But I refused to look.

While I find flowers comforting after a funeral (my Grandma Verdie, Jim’s wife had sooo many), I also find it sad when they die afterwards. It’s nice to know so many people cared about your loved one, but ends up becoming yet another reminder of your loss. I love the Jewish tradition of tzedakah and stones on the grave. There’s something elemental about a rock; solid and eternal, just like your love for the one who has died.

One year in 8th grade the students and I read Simon Wiesenthal’s amazing book, The Sunflower. In case you haven’t read this, it basically tells the story of Mr. Wiesenthal’s time in a concentration camp and his encounter with a Nazi soldier dying of horrible wounds.  The soldier  is seeking forgiveness from a Jewish person for the atrocities he had committed. Highly recommended, by the way.

Anyway, on Mr. Wiesenthal’s trips to work out of the camp, he marched by many graves of Nazi soldiers, which were marked with sunflowers. He wondered if anyone would even know where he would be buried, since he figured he wouldn’t survive and would be thrown in an unmarked hole with many other bodies.

Mr Wiesenthal passed away during the time we were reading the book, which the students found a little spooky. At the end of the class, I gave each of them a small stone I’d painted with a sunflower. I said that whichever of us went to Israel first, I hoped they would take their sunflower stone with them and place it on Mr. Wiesenthal’s grave in his honor. I don’t know if any of them ever did, but I still have mine. If I ever get to Israel, I’d be honored to place it on Mr. Wiesenthal’s grave.

Posted in: Lesson Plans