Earth and pine
August 23, 2011
Image borrowed from this article at Matrifocus.
The fresh scents of newly-turned earth and sweet unfinished pine might connote a construction site, a place where new dreams are being built. I think of the ground opening up to hold a new structure, scaffolding rising into the waiting sky. But these are equally the scent of a Jewish funeral in summertime, when the earth is warm enough to be fragrant as it is opened to receive. The plain pine box in which Jews are traditionally buried has a woodsy scent which rises on the summer air, and the earth smells like new furrows, like farmland, like something precious enough to cradle in our own bare hands.
And of course, at the end of a Jewish funeral we do just that. Either with our hands, or with the shovels provided, each mourner is invited to engage in the physical task of replacing some of the earth atop the casket. It's considered the last act of kindness one can perform for someone who has died. The Hebrew word for funeral, levayah, means "accompaniment;" I think that tossing these handfuls and shovel-fulls of earth are our way of showing ourselves that we've accompanied the soul of the person we love as far as we can go.
I've always liked cemeteries, and the one owned by the community I serve is peaceful and serene. Especially on a breezy August day when cricketsong rises and falls along with the mourner's kaddish, when the world smells sweet and earthy and real. There's something very powerful for me about the knowledge that this ceremony, or something very like it, is the closing parenthesis on every Jewish life. Dressed in simple white linen garments, held in a bed of unfinished pine, we return to the embrace of mother Earth.
They're holy places, cemeteries. We consecrate them with our energy, our grief, our acceptance, our tears. What a profound mystery it is that the soul which enlivens each of us will eventually depart. And when that end comes, none of us can imagine what comes next. For the person who has died, the next chapter -- whatever it may be -- can't be known from here. For those who remain, there is a pile of earth and a shovel, a shoulder to lean on, a memory to burnish to a lasting shine.