“Yitgadal v’yitgadash sh’me raba…”
The flowing Aramaic billows out over the cemetery with an eerie resonance, long remembered rote coming out, the meaning engraved at untold depths in our minds. Someone cries, a piercing shriek of a sob that stabs through the overcast clouds and the fog of my mind, makes me shake and look down in a pitiful pantomime of sympathy, something I should be able to express directly to his family.
In that grave there is a box. It is made of pine, approximately seven feet long and has a Magen David carved into the center of the lid, a circle described around it. It rests at the bottom of six feet of empty space, surrounded by open earth, a mound of which rests on a slat of wood beside which we stand.
In that box is the body of one of my brothers. He was 21 years old–21 days younger than me. His life ended just over a day ago in a hospital. He was admitted to the ICU, already sick, the previous night, and died early yesterday morning after slipping into a comatose state.
The only thoughts I have seem stupid and inappropriate. They’re silly recollections of drinking and joking. He taught me how to “shotgun” beers, he defended a brother’s much-maligned girlfriend, he extolled the virtues of robust women. We called him “Shepherd.” I don’t know what originally spawned it, but I always saw him guiding his brothers, his loved ones. He would advise and commiserate. It pained him to see us upset, even though he was battling depression, himself.
At the service prior, the Rabbi had delivered a speech after his opening prayer. My brothers and I filled half a dozen pews and so, when the Rabbi told us and those gathered how much our fraternity had meant to him, there was a collective intake of breath from those benches. Beside me, a brother choked down a sob and started to cry. I sat, outwardly stoic, but shaking and frothing within. As the pall was wheeled down the aisle, someone–his sister or his step-mother–broke out a high-pitched wail of sorrow. I felt something well up in the back of my mind, move up just behind my eyes and shake my body, but stay within, unwilling to step forward. It was my first funeral service.
It is my first burial. I was not allowed to attend my grandmother’s. I stayed home with my dad’s friend and we took care of a baby squirrel. On the other hand, when my aunt died, she was estranged from our branch of the family and specifically requested that we not attend her funeral.
It is my first Jewish funeral. Never before have I seen the Rabbi put the first shovelful of dirt in the grave, resounding thumps of clumped earth against smooth pine resonating hollow. The father steps up and digs once, twice, thrice and returns. The sister sheds tears, sobbing and sniffing, barely maintaining her composure through the task. It is as the step-mother comes forward that, despite the loss of my glasses weeks prior, I am gifted with the focus to see the lines of her face, the contortions thereof as I note a single tear that drops from her cheek and splashes upon the grass below, all the greener for the drab sky. The father comforts them both as they cry against his shoulders and the rest of us take to the two shovels, dividing the task up between us all. It is among the highest of mitzvot because the recipient can neither do it himself nor repay the favor.
I am gripped by apprehension, the sensation that if I am to move, my knees will break from my calves, shattered and brittle like glass, if I am to step forward and take the shovel. I am consumed by a sense of weight, the dull burden of the unworthy. One of our alumni takes his turn and attacks the soil with manic energy, his face contorted in anger instead of grief. He is a Rabbi in training and I trust him to be sure of what he is doing as he throws more dirt on the grave with that fearful energy, frightening energy, fervor which I had never before seen and hope to never have to see again. He is the first to step up for a second go at the shovel when the pool of volunteers runs dry and his yarmulke flies off and lands in the pit.
The family is led away and I take my turn. I can no longer hear the earth against his coffin as I fill his grave. The mound of soil is smaller, composed not only of reds and browns and oranges, but also yellows and greens–occasionally the deep, verdant green of foliage–and I feel wobbly, my legs still weak beneath me as I try to perform the task with some dignity. Eventually, as the others do, I end my shift and do not turn the shovel over, but spear it into the pile of earth at my side so that the next person may willfully take it up. The stray yarmulke is eventually buried along with our brother.
I listen as his pledge class, his pledge brothers, laugh and cry, joke and mourn all in tandem. Men I have never before seen in sorrow twist their mouths and eyes in new ways, shed tears and wrack their varied frames with sobs. They comfort each other, even as I try to lend a hand to a shoulder, a shoulder to a friend’s head. Before long, we are the only ones left filling the grave–the brothers of Alpha Epsilon Pi in attendance. I hear one speak–the first time he’s done so since we began the burial.
“The Rabbi says they have a backhoe on standby. The soil is wet and it could be difficult to finish by hand.”
We wave off the help as one. I take a second turn at the shovel with a new tack, a new vigor in my movement. When there is no dirt left to scoop up readily, I stab at the mound itself, taking off chunks of soil and splitting them into shovelfuls, dropping those into the grave atop so many more. It does not feel like labor. It is liberating, in a way, and seems important that I do so. We continue until the Rabbi, anxious to make the funeral as brief as possible for the sake of the family, ushers us aside and brings in the backhoe, its massive crane arm dropping down and sliding the remaining soil aside and into the grave.
As the grave is being filled, in this manner, a bird lands on the stacked earth, unafraid of us or the puttering machinery. It is unexceptional in appearance–a bluish, silvery magpie–but it stands atop our brother’s grave and cocks its head, twists its neck, bends down and picks out juicy morsels for itself or its young. I do not know how others see it, but I feel, as I stand there, some connection between it and what lies beneath it, either a renewed or a refreshed sense of life as, once more, my brother lends aid to one that needs it.