One of the sadder, and yet more fascinating, things I had to do in 2009 was to attend my first Jewish funeral, for the mother of one of my students.
I loved how the cantor started it by saying, “Let’s face it, none of us wants to be here today. We all have things we would much rather be doing than this.” Wasn’t that the truth.
But it was the graveside ceremony, under a tent in the snow, that really struck me. One of the things that the two daughters did was to each put a spadeful of earth from Israel onto their mother’s casket, followed by some from good old Syracuse NY. Then family members each put a spadeful of earth on the casket. Finally the rabbi asked if anyone else wanted to do the same.
There was an uncomfortable silence as many of the people from school, most of whom weren’t Jewish, wondered what they should do. Was it appropriate for us to take part in what seemed to be such a painfully intimate tradition? The rabbi must’ve sensed our discomfort, because after that awkward silence, he invited us, all of us, to put a spadeful of earth on the casket, explaining that it was a mitzvah to do so.
Later on, I got to thinking about that some more, and laughed as I considered that if they put earth from New Jersey on my casket, it would have to be decontaminated of all the toxic wastes first. Then I thought, “Nah, just have them use a bucket of Cape May sand.” After all, Cape May is my favorite beach and probably my favorite part of New Jersey.
Well, about a week ago I read an article in the April issue of The Lutheran magazine about a pastor who collects water…for baptisms. He asks family members of the child to be baptized to bring water from places that are significant to them, and that water will be added to the water in the baptismal font that day.
What a great idea, and had I known about it 17 years ago, it would've taken me to Cape May again; this time for water from the Atlantic Ocean. We would’ve used Cape May water for the baptisms of both of our daughters.
Sand and water. Or rather – water and sand. Important symbols at both ends of life.