Shabbat Goy: My net worth

If a municipal burial is closed to me, then perhaps the responsibility for my interment should lie elsewhere.

Cartoon 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cartoon 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. It’s like that other constant, taxation: the older you get, the more seriously you take it. At 25, one scarcely cares about the invisible monthly deductions that ease their way out of one’s pay packet; at 40, with a child and a mortgage and grown-up responsibility, every penny counts. If the government will insist on taking money I can ill afford for services I do not use, the very least I deserve is the right to whine about it from time to time.
But it’s death that has hovered at my shoulder lately. It has to do with the time of year, in part: that long stretch from Purim to Lag Ba’omer, with all the significant dates in the Hebrew calendar connected in one way or another with death. I remember the first time I heard that old joke about the dominant characteristic of Jewish holidays and days of remembrance – “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” – and laughing a little uncomfortably. Now I eat as much as the next man, and leave the philosophical questions about death and the holy days to the Small Noisy One.
Small Noisy One to Mrs Goy: “Why is it davka us Jews that they are always trying to kill?” It is just before Remembrance Day and Mrs Goy is explaining the visit to the military cemetery the next day. Mrs Goy looks despairingly in my direction: I ostentatiously fold my newspaper and go to the kitchen in search of food. This one’s all for you, dear...
But death has been a presence in other ways besides. Not long ago, the parent of a friend was killed in an accident. One moment here, the next minute not. Forever. It shakes one, the forceful reminder that life can be snuffed out in an instant. Without the opportunity to set one’s affairs in order, to say goodbye, to reflect on a life well spent. And of course, then there’s that great unknown on the other side of the curtain. Is there a second act; is there something beyond the grave? Or are thoughts of an afterlife just simply the product of man’s innate egotism, the refusal to acknowledge that when it all comes down to it life is random, without any deeper meaning? That’s the difference between death and taxation, I suppose: it taps into a reflective strain that I hitherto hadn’t recognized in myself.
We’re driving to the shiva, Mrs Goy and I, and I start to think about the rituals of mourning. We don’t often think about them often, do we? Or at least we try hard not to think about them. There’s something ghoulish about the need to contemplate, rationally, plans for the moment after the loss of a loved one.
In the part of Nigeria where I spent my childhood, death is an opportunity for a celebration, the commemoration of a good life. There’s the lying in state, the service of songs, the burial itself. And after all that, a party. I can see the logic in affording the dearly departed a suitably befitting send-off, but it isn’t something that sits comfortably with me. Still, this didn’t stop me, when I was a teenager in boarding school, from dressing up in my nicest clothes most Fridays – Friday is funeral day – breaking bounds and gate-crashing funeral parties in search of free food and alcohol. You can think of it as the work of a professional mourner, I suppose. Happy days. But I wouldn’t be able to do that now.
There is a certain reassurance in the ritual of sitting shiva, I think. The knowledge of knowing that what you will do has been done countless times before and will be done countless times again. The kri’a, the rending of an outer garment. The covering of the mirrors, the sitting on low stools. The seudat havra’a (first meal the mourners eat upon returning from the funeral). Rituals sometimes run the risk of becoming meaningless actions when the underlying intent is lost. But it seems to me that the customs of sitting shiva enable the grieving process. They shape the process of mourning; they prevent the intrusion of everyday routine – what will I feed the guests, do I go to work – but at the same time try to ensure that the bereaved are not completely overwhelmed by their sorrow. Nothing removes the pain of losing a loved one, of course. But anything that helps process these emotions, makes them more bearable, is important.
Driving home, Mrs Goy mentions an article she had read in the paper about a private cemetery somewhere or other in the country. NIS 60,000, the burial will cost. I can’t imagine anyone spending that much money on me after I’m gone, I say. You might as well give it to me while I’m still alive. I’ll put it to better use now, thank you very much.
But perhaps I should explore these things. Not that I intend to shuffle off this mortal coil just yet, but you know how it is. Man plans and God laughs. And there is the very icky business of what exactly to do with me if I, you know, do pass away in these parts. No burial for me in a municipal cemetery, even if I wanted to be interred thus.
Personally, I prefer cremation. We’ve talked about it before and I have a reminder note to find out exactly where Israel’s only crematorium is located. You know, that one in an undisclosed location. The one someone tried to burn down a few years ago, because they don’t like the whole cremation business.
But even if I do succeed in being cremated, there’s another problem. “What should I do with your ashes?” Mrs Goy asks. I have no idea. I don’t particularly like the idea of being put on display in an urn. And, unsentimental creature that I am, I can’t think of any special location where I’d like to be scattered. Then a thought occurs to me. If the option of a municipal burial is closed to me – you know, at burial grounds maintained with my tax shekels – then perhaps the responsibility for my interment should lie elsewhere. Now, I know I’ve got the address of the tax office somewhere.