(Delivered at UUSF on December 9, 2018. Listen to the audio here.)
Five years ago, I buried my grandpa and realized that death has lost its enormity.
When I got the call, I booked plane tickets to the East Coast. I spent time with family. I mourned. But nothing was asked of me.
I didn't have to do anything for the funeral because there are businesses built around death. Everything is taken care of, from washing and praying over the body, to making the coffin or urn, to carrying the coffin, to digging the grave, to catering the lunch afterwards. It's easy. Just put in money, and you don't have to worry about anything at that tragic time, supposedly so you can have room to mourn.
The irony is that at the same time as we were paying people to make the burial easier, the rabbi told us of the Jewish tradition of putting dirt in the grave using the shovel upside-down. It makes filling the grave difficult because we want to recognize that parting with our loved ones is difficult.
Death should not be easy.
In that experience, I didn't have room to mourn. There were stifled tears, but the process was so mechanical. We went from place to place, 10 minutes at a time for each ritual, and then moved on. The rituals lost their impact.
I was a pallbearer. We moved the coffin 10 feet from the temple into the car, we drove 4 miles, and we moved the coffin 20 feet from the car to the grave. Then, we placed it on straps and someone who didn't know my grandpa mechanically lowered the coffin into the grave, already dug out by someone who didn't know my grandpa. Then, family members put a couple shovels full of dirt onto the coffin, leaving the rest of the process to someone who didn't know my grandpa.
As that was happening, I couldn't help but think that each of those things we paid for were supposed to be part of mourning. Carrying a coffin four miles by hand in the company of everyone who was closest to my grandpa would have been hard. Digging 6 feet into the cold dirt with upside down shovels would have been hard. Using ropes to lower the coffin by hand would have been hard. All of that would have required support from the community. It would have taken a full day. We would all have been sweaty and cursing the elements for making the process so, so difficult. We would have said prayers. We would have sung. We would have cried. And maybe we would have healed a little bit of the broken space inside of us.
It's important to do the hard stuff because it is hard. These rituals help us bear witness to a life. And they also help us face death rather than shy away from it even though we really want to shy away from it. That is why we get together as a community, carry a body, dig a hole, and plant a stone in memorial of a life.