From the collection Paradise Field: A Novel in Stories,
now out from Fiction Collective 2
* * *
When a death is expected—as in the case of a family member, such as a parent—perhaps an elderly parent—or even more specifically, in the case of one’s father, for example—decisions must be made as to the means of final disposition of the body. For the urban Jew, this usually constitutes burial in a cemetery outside the city limits, but those in suburban settings may consider interment in a yard or garden. To that end, a journeyman Soil Shifter, can be had for hire. As he makes his rounds through the neighborhood, he is alerted to an impending death when the well-known “Death Angel” mushroom, Amanita matzoa, sprouts on the lawn of the dying. This particular species of Amanita is, of course, named for the Passover Angel of Death who delivered the Tenth Plague to Egypt, requiring the Israelites to bake unleavened bread and descend into the Sinai (although he was probably responsible for the rain of frogs, lice, and locusts as well.) In addition, a Soil Shifter will stop at any house of the dead or dying where a mitpachat is displayed above the lintel or the deceased’s tallit is hung over the mailbox. If a tallit is used, be sure to cut off a corner fringe to signify that it will no longer be used as a prayer shawl, and that the deceased is no longer required to pray (not that a particular daughter recalled her father ever praying about anything, except when he said Kaddish at his own father’s funeral, and that time he was audited by the IRS.) And though the Soil Shifter will be readily available, it is considered an especially charitable mitzvah to forgo his services and instead, dig the grave yourself. The deceased can offer neither reward nor gratitude for your labors, and because he cannot make his own beit olam, doing so for him is truly the final act of kindness. As it is written in Ruth 2:20, “Blessed be he who hath not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead.”
The bereaved may have other, more personal motives in deciding to forgo the Soil Shifter and tackle the task himself. There may be old grudges and resentments regarding the dead, and amends that were never made. (If the deceased person was, for example, a father, then it is quite possible that the adult child, a daughter, for instance, may regret her actions during the father’s illness and last days. She may not have heeded the assertion of Proverbs 17:22: “A glad heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps the strength of the sick.” She would likely recall that her heart was hardly glad while caring for her father. She is likely to remember her impatience when he refused to eat, her revulsion when she scrubbed his dentures, her shame at holding his urinal or wiping his butt. She will recall the dietary restrictions she enforced to the point that there was little enjoyment left to him, i.e. “Lox? Forget it—too much salt.” She may have been angry with the father, believing he could have “tried harder” to exercise, to take his heart medications on time, to get off his ass and walk with his walker and try to get his strength back, etc. She may lament her lack of expressions of endearment, believing that there would be the proverbial “more time” to resolve her ridiculous resentments regarding his apathy and absence during her childhood, especially now that she is well into middle age.) But there will be no atonement in these matters, of course—no forgiveness—and it is best that such a person simply attend to digging of the burial hole as mitzvah for its own sake. Grieving individuals often require instruction in grave excavation. Domestic Disposal of the Dead (Vol I& II), Planning a Home Necropolis (no longer in print), and The History of Digging: Paleolithic Man to the Present (Vol I - IV) remain the classic texts, although they are often daunting to the bereaved. Many find it impossible to wade through lengthy discussions and instructions after the death of a family member, or even as death draws near. This is especially the case when the accompanying compulsion “to be done with it” is a common reaction if the dying individual—a father, for example—had endured lengthy suffering and/or humiliation, i.e. bladder and bowel dysfunction (what a father might call “pissing and shitting myself ”), tremor of the extremities (what he called “the shakes”), and advice/remedies suggested by well-meaning bedside visitors (“Gefilte fish? You want to kill him?”) And as Jewish law requires that the body be interred within twenty-four hours of death, perusal of a multi-volume text is not possible. Therefore, the bereaved will find Internment for Yard & Garden: A Practical Guide to be both practical and comforting.
Alternatives to Interment
The dead must be placed in the earth. This is Jewish law. G-d’s directive to Adam was unequivocal: “You shall return to the earth, for you were taken out of it.”—Genesis 3:19. And yet, non-observant, unedu- cated, or spiritually bereft Jews may consider other methods—namely Sky Burial, Carcass Conflagration, or Burial at Sea. Therefore, these alternatives warrant discussion here.
1—Sky Burial (in which the body is placed above ground for vulture consumption) was practiced by an- cient Israelites during times of flight from persecution, when the process of digging through the rock-bound desert soil would delay the escape of the living. Sky Burial remains in use today, but due to declining numbers of Catugthis aura (i.e. Carrion Crow) species, there are fewer birds to feed on the body and flesh removal is delayed. Sky Burial also brings with it the nuisance factor of birds (referred to as Sky Schnorrers) continuing to root and circle long after the corpse has been consumed. Observations of the lingering birds (Schnorrer Sightings) reveal that they retain an interest in familiar earthly events, croaking announcements in the voice of the newly departed/recently ingested person: “Candle-lighting at 6:23 tonight”—or voicing criticism regarding sights on the ground below: “This you call a Sukkot tent?” (In the case of a father, for example, whose bird might be circling in skies above the neighborhood at dusk, his remarks are likely to be more secular: “Who left all the goddamn lights on?”)
2—Carcass Conflagration (with subsequent wind dispersion of char/ash) is clearly forbidden by Jewish law. This method is an especially abhorrent reminder of the extermination crematoria of just one generation ago. In addition to its obvious desecration of the body, reports of abnormalities in songbirds in the forests around Treblinka and Ravensbrück were well documented. Such deformities (avian caul, soot wing) have been so observed around present-day crematoria, and are believed to be caused by tooth fillings which volatize during the intense heat of incineration and are spewed into the atmosphere as mercury vapor. (Not a factor, for example, in the case of a father who had no fillings—just badly neglected teeth, broken to the gum- line under his dentures—as a result of a childhood fear of the family dentist and third cousin Morton Plotkin DDS, who smoked a cigar during dental procedures, was known to drop hot ash into the patient’s lap, and gave a discount on extractions every Friday before Shabbos.) Despite the connotations, reduction of the body to char and ash is still regarded as a means of disposition by uninformed Jews or those influenced by the funereal practices of gentiles. In addition, the topic of carcass conflagration may be bantered about by simply irreverent persons (case in point: a dying father who—when asked about his wishes—was fond of saying, “Dead is dead” and “Who gives a crap?”— though near the end he reminded his adult daughter about the existence of a cemetery plot he “paid good money for” and in truth, had absolutely no inclinations toward a fiery end anyway.) Nevertheless, even if the deceased had left instructions for conflagration, it is the obligation of those caring for the body to disregard such wishes and to provide a burial in accordance with the laws of the Torah.
Lastly, Carcass Conflagration can occasionally result in the troubling spectacle known as Ash Reorganization. During this phenomenon, air-borne particles spewing from crematorium smokestacks rise, regroup, and hover in the shape of the deceased—sometimes for several days—before eventual dispersal (or when wind velocity exceeds 30 mph.)
3—Burial at Sea is sometimes requested by individ- uals who are wistfully enamored of the ocean. They decide that upon their demise, their charred remains be dispersed (or what is more commonly referred to as “scattered”) upon the waves from a scenic seaside overlook or the railing of a boat. This practice is clearly contrary to Jewish law. But what of the more complex problem that arises when a Jew happens to die at sea, as ships will not alter their course when a death occurs. Such a situation is not unusual during a cruise vacation, when the elderly (a sizable percentage of cruise passengers) are more likely to succumb to on-board hazards: the chazeri served at the 24 hour- all-you-can-eat-buffet, the diarrhea and subsequent dehydration caused by the aptly named “Bon Voyage Virus,” the falls that inevitably occur when old folks careen around in their cabins in rough seas, and the third-rate doctors that cruise lines employ—(which might be exactly the worries of an adult daughter, for instance, when her elderly father had been cajoled into a week-long “Epicurean Cruise of the Caribbean ” by his big fat selfish so-called girlfriend and world- class kvetcher who never really gave a whit about him anyway, and was mainly interested in working her way through the aforementioned buffet and desert display at a pace fast enough to work up a good schvits. And although the daughter worried that the exertions of the trip—schlepping the luggage, the aforementioned dreck that cruise lines call food, the very real possibility that the to-and-fro motions of the moon-driven sea might cause the big girlfriend to roll over on her father while he slept and cause his suffocation, he made it back alive—thanks be to G-d he did. He made it back and nothing that bad happened, nothing really bad—although his favorite hat blew off his head by the brisk wind off the stern—the cap he was awarded that time he made a hole-in-one at the Del Ray Country Club on the 6th hole—which is a downhill 250 yard, par-three with a dogleg left—and he watched from the rail as the hat sailed up into the smoke stack steam, briefly disappeared into the mist, reappeared again overhead, spun almost back to him on a starboard gust, was taken again by a spume of sea, and finally lost in the foam. If something bad had happened—really bad, G-d forbid—such as any of the things a father was prone to, including stroke, blood clot, burst aorta, or infarction of the heart—he would have been buried at sea. This would free the big woman to disembark at the next scheduled stop without the old man along, i.e., “without George slowing me down” (as she often remarked), and to suspend her grief for a duty-free stint of spending—perhaps another bracelet from the Cartier in Freeport, a few touristy tchotchkes as gifts, and it’s always a good idea to pick up a dozen big bars of Swiss chocolate when you’ve got the chance.) Deposition in the earth is not an option at sea, of course, unless the decision is made to delay earth burial and place the corpse in the ship’s cold storage with the pork tenderloin, khazer-fisl, and assorted treif for what may be an extended period of time—clearly a desecration of the body. In such circumstances, Burial at Sea is preferable. There will be no grave-marker and no place of remembrance, but the deceased can rely upon G-d’s mercy: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”—Isaiah 43:3. The shrouded body is simply placed upon a board. The board is set upon the rail and tilted seaward. The body slides away, slipping beneath the waves and into the foam like an old hat. After notions about the alternative methods of corpse disposition are dismissed, and the choice is made to obey Jewish law, the bereaved must then decide: burial with or without a coffin. A Jew’s coffin must be a simple wooden box, constructed without nails or metal hinges to ensure that it will—like the body—return to the earth in its entirety. However, burial without a coffin is certainly permissible, even recommended. Interment of the body wearing only a soft white shroud is an ancient Jewish practice that honors the dead, and the sight of an actual body in the burial hole helps awaken the living.
Shovel acquisition is the next task. According to a notation in the Jewish Magical Papyri of the Second Temple Period, the shovel used to dig a hole in which to place a body must not be a new one. Maimonides, in an apocryphal chapter of his Guide for the Perplexed, explains that a new shovel is “inauthentic” and can- not be utilized as a functional talisman. The digger therefore should obtain a shovel previously used for digging a burial hole—though use in any other type of excavation will do.
This is not a problem in more rural or country settings where hole digging is nearly habitual. In such areas, a peek in any barn, outbuilding, or shed, will reveal a variety of useful implements—half-moon hoes, soil scuffles, mulch scoopers, and of course, shovels. But when a death occurs in more suburban districts, cries of “Where can a shovel be had?” are common.
Suburban Jews rarely dig or engage in yard and garden maintenance (possibly a result of the ancient exodus from original agricultural exploits to urban occupations). And when they must, they are often exceedingly inept. (Case in point: an adult daughter may fondly recall the father’s antics in attempting to mow the lawn: the cursing that ensued as he repeatedly ran the power mower over the electric cord, and the pathetic repair of the breaks with adhesive tape. Or the time he nearly amputated a finger with the hedge clippers.) However, during the relatively brief period between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, physiological changes take over. A combination of pho- toperiodism and circadian rhythms trigger pituitary secretion of Digging Induction Substances, which, in turn, result in the three Excavational Patterns:
1—Atavistic Agronomy: The suburban homeowner is stimulated by agricultural tendencies that flourished before the displacement of the Jewish farmer: he decides to grow his own food. He falls prey to the color photographs and descriptions in seed catalogues, i.e. “Big Boy Carrots—crisp and colorful, perfect for a holiday tzimmes” and “Potato Mezzo Luna—truly tantalizing tubers for pancakes or kugel.” He purchas- es seed, shovel, and spade. He tills the garden plot, mulches and composts, and carefully sows according to seed packet instructions. (Or, as in the case of a certain father, spreads a bag of topsoil on a sunny spot, tears the seed packets open with his teeth, and sprinkles seeds willy-nilly. He then soaks down the whole thing with the garden hose for the first and last time, relying on sporadic rainfall thereafter.)
While Atavistic Agronomy results in shovel acquisition and some degree of cultivation, it quickly becomes obvious that a vegetable garden requires tending: weeding, spraying, watering, pinching, fertilizing, thinning, mulching, composting, and pest removal. Sprouting plants are often consumed by local wildlife (rabbits, whistle pigs, and the like), crowded out by weeds, or killed off during dry spells. Eventually, the would-be gardener concedes defeat (or—for in- stance—a father realizes that his wife would never serve up fresh vegetables anyway, and would continue to do nothing more than open a can of Green Giant creamed corn.)
2—Denning: The homeowner is driven to construct a subterranean shelter. This activity is prevalent in the autumn, but can occur in any season during an apocalyptic threat: a period of potential earth-meteor collision, nuclear winter, or infrastructure failure. The evolutionary mechanism for this activity is unclear, but is thought to be associated with primitive bur- rowing instincts before winter sets in. To construct his underground living quarters, the homeowner buys his shovel and begins to dig—(or in the case of a particular father who does not actually buy a shovel because he has a brother-in-law in retail who knows a guy who can get one that “fell off a truck ” which is cheaper than wholesale even.)
Eventually, denning behaviors cease. The unforeseen expenses involved in construction of the subterranean shelter (septic field, sump, solar panels, thermonuclear protection, etc.) ultimately halt the project. (A father’s comments typically include “Never throw good money after bad” or a simple “To hell with it.”)
3—Pseudo Veld Syndrome: The suburban homeown- er unconsciously yearns for the environs of his Homo erectus ancestors: the South African veld along the Limpopo River—a landscape of broad savannahs with a scattering of brush, and the open vistas that facilitate the sighting of game. The results of these longings can be seen around nearly every suburban home: yards that are essentially an expanse of grass (lawns) with carefully spaced plantings (shrubbery). To recreate this landscape, the homeowner purchases a rake, hoe, and shovel, and prepares his weedy property for re-seeding by hacking up and turning over the old sod. He then purchases specimens of commonly planted shrubs— usually ornamentals such as Arborvitae and Yew (Taxus brevifolia.) These arrive by truck and require several men to unload them, due to their unwieldiness and the weight of their bulky root-balls bound in burlap. Undaunted (at least initially), the homeowner rolls up his sleeves and begin to dig (or in the case of some fathers, for instance, head back inside the house for a shot of scotch before getting down to business.)
The transformation of his property from ordinary yard to ancestral hunting environs predictably arouses blood sport instincts in the suburban male. He then typically conceals himself in the newly planted shrub- bery with some sort of weapon at the ready (firearm, crossbow, spear, or steel-rimmed yarmulke), keeping an eye out for non-existent antelope and kudu, but taking pot shots at roaming cats or unleashed dogs. When this proves unsuccessful, he disregards the biblical assertion against killing (“G-d’s mercies extend to all His creatures.”—Psalms 145:9) and takes to the November woods to stalk wildlife with a group of other men—both Jew and Gentile—similarly affected. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) being plentiful in both rural and wilderness districts, is the object of the slaughter.
Certain words of incantation are spoken during these weekend expeditions: Cull. Doe. Buck. Bag. Rack. Points. Blade. Skin. Gut. They are repeated while motoring to what they refer to as “the mountains” or “upstate.” They are uttered while settling into a lodge with a rustic décor (antler light fixtures) or an old motel (pine paneling) and again the evening before the hunt while gathering at a drinking establishment where dusty specimens of taxidermy gaze down upon them (the head of a glass-eyed deer, the snarling raccoon perched on a stump, the female bear posed with her cub). Come early morning, while the men are pulling on blaze orange or camouflage jackets and ear-flapped hats in the predawn dark, the words are spoken once again, silently at times, and once again on their walk though the woods as the day is breaking. They will follow the random marks in the snow and speculate on the size and direction of the prey. They will examine and discuss a “trail” of broken twigs and attempt to interpret its meaning. They will point their guns at every sound—the shh shh shh wing-beat work of crows passing over, the creak of wind-swinging tree—and they will peer down their gun sights at nothing. Success will have little to do with the accuracy of their aim or their ability to track or any skill at all—but instead, upon their readiness to shoot at anything that moves. To be sure, some come home with a story of how a carcass came to be slung and tied across the car roof or lashed to the bumper, and the bloodiest of labors still ahead of them. Others return with only a coating of snow on the roof of the old Desoto or the Buick or the Pontiac sedan (a father, for instance, returning to a wife who had been hoping there would be nothing to chop and wrap and pack in the freezer. That father returning home to a child—let’s say a daughter—yes, a daughter—why not?—who had waited out that November weekend as she had done each year after childhood year, upstairs in her room busying herself making a model of the solar system, or cracking geodes with a hammer (“What’s going on up there?” shouts the mother) or re-reading Three Little Foxes or Black Beauty or The Catcher in the Rye. She rambles around the yard and frozen garden where last summer’s weeds stand sparkling with frost. And after nightfall, the daughter lies awake in her bed in the early dark that winter evenings bring, waiting for the headlight lights to slide across her bedroom wall and the car door to slam the way the father slams it. And finally, to hear the father jiggle the key in the lock and the rough way he presses down the thumb latch and the way he kicks the door so that she knows—as soon as that, she knows. She hears the father come solidly up the stairs, and now the third step makes its terrible creak. She sees the shape of him his ear-flapped cap as he stops and stands at her bedroom door. Would he come in and find too many bears in her bed, or say she has a dolly one or two too many, and would he sweep them out of her arms and to the floor? Would he slam that shut, too, in the one-handed way he liked to slam it? The way that hard but good-looking man in the movie slammed it when the woman walked out and the boy ran away and the grandfather died because his cows were herded into the giant ditch and the men on the rim picked up their rifles and shot down into all the cows in the ditch, and when all the cows were dead or you could hear them dying, the men put down their rifles and pushed the big piles of earth and bull-dozed them over—that was the way the father liked to slam it, even though he knew the daughter did not like to be shut up in the dark—she told him as much, once or twice or a hundred times but maybe he didn’t remember, no he must not have remembered—time after time and year after childhood year, until the daughter—the child—hoped that once, just once he might come through the door saying,“Pamela!—how’s my girl?” and smelling of pine-smoke and cold wool clothes, his rough face against her cheek, the father back home in a way he never was—at least not any time she remembered. Would he come home to tell his wife the story of the woods and the snow and the gun—in the way he once must have told her things—he must have, once—before she was born—the way they used to be in an old photograph? “Our honeymoon,” the mother told the daughter—the coconut palms, her father’s arm around her mother’s waist, the water sliding up the sand in shapes of lace along their feet. And this time telling his wife and daughter, “Got one” or whatever it is a man, a hunter, a father telling a story of killing would call himself after he had done what he had set out to do. The daughter imagines him holding the head of it in his arms, the neck cut away at the shoulder, the fall of blood—a trail of it from the car and the ropes; a leakage of the lolling tongue from front door through the living room, dripping down even in her daytime dreams because gravity pulls everything down and keeps her in her seat at the supper table and keeps her in her bed so she won’t float away when she sleeps, keeps the planets of the solar system in their places so they won’t spin away and collide with the stars, keeps the birds flying between earth and sky where they won’t whirl away all wild and willy-nilly. She sees how it must have been: the deer standing against the moon-blue snow with the last of the stars in the great smoke-like spill of a galaxy spinning above him, his mouth pulling on a bitter sprig of spicebush with his long deer-snout. Dawn spreads over the snow so he does not see the shadows moving toward him until the gun is raised, and then comes the bursting of his body. Quail rise from their cover. Snow slides from an evergreen bough. It would be quick, she imagines. It must be so, and without the moans or movements that she has heard the dying make. No chase. The butchery, the beheading, with eyes still clear—brown and like her eyes would look if she were dead—but that part would not be trouble, that part of it would be all right, would just have to be all right, so that her father for once would have his day, his proud and good and happy day.)
Pseudo-Veld Syndrome will end of its own accord. As is the case with other Excavational Patterns, it is self-limiting. Enthusiasm will wane with a succession of unproductive hunts. And even for those who manage to bring home and consume a carcass, the inconve- niences of the outings diminish the call of the veld. The expeditions become more infrequent. Eventually they are given up entirely.
Shovels are abandoned when the excavational activities cease. Most are relegated to basements and garages, (or in the case of a certain father, for instance, who left the shovel leaning against the side of the garage for the next fifty-seven years.) It is often only after a future death—perhaps decades later—that they will be needed and the quest for shovel acquisition begins once again.
In most cases, the forsaken shovel will be in a poor state of repair. The ferules at the handle or shaft will be loose. The blade edge will be dull, the scoop surface rusted, the rim-rest for the foot caked with soil. While it is tempting to ignore these imperfections and begin the digging, taking a few moments for repairs is well worth the trouble. Hose off any accumulations of caked-on soil. Use a screwdriver to tighten the ferule with a twist or two. Remove rusted areas on the scoop surface with a medium grade steel wool. And finally, use a file to sharpen the edge of the blade.
Site selection, or “Where To Dig?” is the next task. Associates of the deceased will inevitably suggest a place under a tree—a picturesque setting that the corpse would approve of, as in, “He would have liked that.” However, what the deceased once preferred or continues to prefer is not an issue—(although a daughter might imagine her father sitting graveside on a cool day in autumn when the skies are clear of clouds and there is very little wind, and the father commenting, “Perfect weather for a flight out.”) Tree roots greatly interfere with the digging. Root systems spread out from the trunk at least as far as its boughs spread out in the air. Therefore, begin digging beyond the farthest point of limb-spread or risk the troubling phenomenon known as Arboreal Lament in which in- jury to the roots results in a most melancholy moaning by the assaulted tree. If injury continues unchecked, the moaning will become a synchronized keening of other trees in the area. Once full-blown keening is in progress, keening trees cannot be silenced until they are cut down and destroyed in their entirety. Even the stumps and woodchips will continue to keen—though weakly—unless they are completely obliterated, so select the site with utmost care.
After the appropriate site has been selected, the surface must be inspected and prepared before the actual digging begins. There will be an assortment of rocks and stones on the site, which often shelter colonies of ants. The Old Testament holds these creatures in high esteem—“The ants are a people exceedingly wise”— Proverbs: 30: 24—and disturbance to their community should be avoided. To ascertain the presence of an ant colony, assume a prone position facing the rock you intend to lift. Tap the rock as both a warning and greeting to the vigil ant and wait five minutes (in Formic Time.) This will give the colony time to prepare and summon custodial ant. Then carefully slide the blade of a kitchen knife (one taken from the household of the deceased is preferable) approximately one inch under the rock and gently pry it up. If an active colony is present, the adult custodial ant will emerge, displaying the pupa in its arms. Allow the custodial ant to withdraw, and slowly lower the rock back into position. The appearance of the adult custodial ant with young (pupae) indicates you must select a different site. If no adult/pupa appears, you may proceed with site preparation.
There will be surface vegetation to consider, includ- ing wildflowers, crab grass, and a tangle of creepers and vines. Carefully dig these out and place in a bucket of water for replanting. Have the bucket filled and ready before you break the first earth, as you are not likely to fetch and fill a bucket in mid-dig. Once the earth is opened, the rhythm of shoveling and the dazzle of sparking stones are almost hypnotic, and you will not stop until the digging is done.
Knowing the size and shape of the hole will be helpful as you dig, so begin by making a surface outline two feet larger than the corpse (or coffin) on all sides, and in the shape of the burial hole you will need. Slice through the sod—the dense root matrix of grass and other plants—by using the shovel tip to make a series of small cuts with an up-and-down chopping motion. As the sod comes away from the underlying loam, gently lift it with the shovel blade, keeping it as intact as possible. Set the piece of sod aside some distance from the hole, preferably on a tarpaulin so it can be retrieved later and sprinkle it with water from your bucket. Do not scatter clumps of sod around the site willy-nilly: they will be lost in the soil that is flung from the hole.
Beneath the sod lies the loam layer, composed of mineral particles (sand, silt, clay) and decaying plant matter or humus—(not to be confused with hummus, which is usually served with pita to those sitting shiva in the house of mourning, along with the usual platters of cream cheese, lox, and bagels, this last item signifying the continuity of life circling the dark hole of oblivion.) Also within the loam layer you will encounter the members of the loam biota: grubs, snail, slugs, millipedes, centipedes, burrowing beetles, worms, loam lice, nematodes, and the Star-Nosed Mole (Condylura cristata). Do not mix the loam with other layers. Do not use your shovel to lift the loam. Instead, cautiously proceed with a spoon (traditionally runcible, but any spoon previously owned by the decedent is permissible), so you will not injure the denizens of the loam. Smaller creatures found during your spoon- work should be placed into a bucket of moist soil; the star-nosed mole should be removed and sheltered separately. He will offer no resistance to being held in your hand or gently examined, as the Star-Nosed species is quite tame (much like a pet white mouse that a child—a young daughter—might have kept hidden in her bedroom, and upon its escape, the father offered to the family cat.) Note the mole’s dense coat and his prominent snout appendages. These fleshy protuber- ances evolved during the Cenozoic era, when the now extinct bare-nosed mole (Condyludra nudis) ingested the galactic debris and star particles that fell to earth during the frequent meteor showers of that period. Modern-day meteor strikes have been attributed to Star-Nosed Mole molestation (underground nuclear testing, hydraulic fracturing, etc.) so do not anger him. Handle/transfer the creature with care. Place him in a small, covered basket (traditionally, similar to the one that held baby Moses in the rushes—if at all possible) for safekeeping during your dig. Remember that the creatures of the loam possess mouthparts that allow them to consume decaying organic matter. After the body has been buried, they will descend and become close associates of the deceased and assist him in returning to the earth.
The Glacial Till
The last layer of digging will be through sediment, clay, sand, and stone—the Ice Age depositions of the retreating glacier. You will also come upon rocks. Rocks, sadly, are often confused with stones. Stones are smooth, having been abraded by glacial transport. Rocks, on the other hand, are fragments of larger sur- face formations and not part of the glacial till. It is easy to remember which is which by the simple mnemonic: Rough rock, smooth stone. In addition, stones will spark and provoke a spark response in surrounding brother-stones when struck by a shovel blade. Rocks, on the other hand, will emit a low rumbling sound and smolder. Noisy rocks should be dowsed and then allowed a brief interval of rest before they are touched. Here again, your bucket will come in handy.
You will encounter larger stones that require a special excavational technique. In order to remove a large stone, wedge the tip of the shovel blade under the exposed part of it; coax it away from the surrounding soil by tilting the shovel back and forth, rocking the stone in its bed.
Remember: stones have slept undisturbed in their ancient glacial till since the Ice Age, and will be reluc- tant to leave the ancestral mortise. Rocks are just as difficult to dislodge, but this is due to their irregular shapes and not their disinclination to move. As with a stone, the shovel-tilt technique will release a rock from its substrate.
As the digging progresses, be sure to set aside a dozen or so stones for future use by mourners who visit. Red, brown, and blue stones are preferable and should be of a size that fits comfortably in a fisted hand. As each stone is chosen, a brief meditation is required in order to remember that the deceased is indeed lost to the living, but his soul—like a stone—will endure.
Emergence of The Eben-Ezer Stones
Near the end of the digging, two stones or Eben will emerge. These are the “helper” or Ezer stones, so named in 1 Samuel 7:12—“When men of Israel smote the Philistines, Samuel placed a stone he called Eben-Ezer between the city of Maspath and the cliffs of Sen, saying
‘hitherto the Lord has helped us.’ ” The first Eben-Ezer stone will be the larger of two stones that protrude from the wall of the excavation. Its emergence signifies that the hole is not yet wide enough. You will be unable to gauge the actual size of this stone and no amount of shovel-tilting will dislodge it. Instead, position yourself prone with your chin and arms hanging over the hole and loosen it with the kitchen knife. Reach down and slide the blade between the first Eben-Ezer stone and its substrate, scraping away the soil as you go. You will find that it extends well past what is visible. Upon its removal, a concavity will remain; it will be necessary to remove soil all along the span of the wall, thereby automatically increasing the width of the hole. Do not be discouraged by the need for further digging. Widening of the hole at this juncture will be advantageous when you position the corpse.
After adjusting the width of the hole, continue your downward dig until a shovel-strike causes a sudden spray of sparks; this indicates that the Second Eben- Ezer Stone (also called the Matzava or Marker Stone) has been struck. It will be larger than any of the other stones, quite smooth, and the color of an underripe pomegranate or persimmon. Use the shovel-tilt method to free it, and place it on the surface where you will be able to easily locate it at the end of your digging. Emergence of the Marker Stone signifies the end of your digging, except for the leveling of the floor of the hole. This is the time to use a sprit level to ensure the floor of the hole is horizontal, so that the head and feet of the deceased will be on the same plane. If leveling off is required, make your adjustments, set the two Eben-Ezer stones aside on the surface, and prepare to set the body in the hole.
The Placement of the Body
Be sure the winding cloth is secure before placing the body in the hole. Tuck the loose ends well into a fold of the cloth to prevent the arms and legs from flopping about during descent.
Correct placement of a body is best done with two. However, if you are alone, you may place the corpse at the edge of the burial hole, position your shovel so the shaft can act as a ramp of sorts, and allow it to gently slide down. You then must climb down into the hole to make final adjustment for proper positioning: head level and in spinal alignment, face turned toward the sky, torso without tilt. When these tasks are completed, return to the surface and prepare to cover the body with soil and fill in the hole.
Again With the Shovel
If there are other mourners, call them graveside for K’vurah. This act of throwing soil on the body allows them to show the deceased Chesed Shel Emet—a last act of compassion, (although the live-in girl friend will beg off because she is afraid it might ruin her manicure, or afraid that her new shoes will be dirtied by the soil, or afraid that the daughter might smack her with the shovel.) If soil from the land of Israel is available, it should be sprinkled over the body at this time.
The hole-digger should be the first and the last to put soil in the hole. The back of the shovel blade should be used to signify sadness and reluctance. Slowly, and with care and attention, throw three shovelfuls of soil upon the shrouded corpse for the three levels of the soul: nefesh, ruach, neshama. Then set the shovel blade upright into the soil-pile—do not hand it to the next mourner, to avoid any transfer of grief. If shoveling alone, shovel three times and rest, three times and rest, three times and rest, until all of the glacial till has been replaced. Do not be alarmed if the smaller stones spark as they are thrown into the hole. Do not be alarmed if the Star-Nosed mole squeaks from the shelter of his covered basket at the sound of falling soil. This behavior has been well documented, and is believed to be an expression of his anticipation in returning to his subterranean home. He will cease his squeaking when Kaddish has been said, as it ends with a plea for peace: Oseh Shalom.
Next, replace the layer of loam. Sprinkle it with water if it has dried out while you were digging. Then release the creatures of the loam biotic by allowing them to crawl from the bucket into the unpacked grave soil. When they have safely burrowed under, release the Star-Nosed Mole from his covered basket. He will utilize his large, clawed forepaws and quickly descend. Finally, replace the sod and any surface flora previously removed, and water to help re-establish rooting.
Setting the Eben-Ezer Stones
The Eben Ezer stones may now be set in place, although waiting until the first yahrzeit is certainly permissible. Place the smaller stone at the foot and the larger one at the head. The Matzava, when finally inscribed, should bear the name of the deceased and nothing more.
The digger may choose to remain at the gravesite until after dusk to give the soul of the deceased time to become accustomed to his beit olam, and to finalize farewell. Sparks released from stones settling into the substrate will continue to rise from the grave and fly up into the night. It is during this somber interval that the bereaved person traditionally reflects upon events in the life of the deceased—perhaps a milestone in his life, a happy interval, or even a defining one that the bereaved person who happens to be the adult child of the deceased remembers. (Yes, sure: what a daughter would remember—a daughter, for instance—yes, the bereaved person could easily be a daughter recalling the summer night of her early childhood when she was carried to the rooftop—a very small girl lifted her father’s arms. She had settled upon his shoulder so that she could look back at the dim stairwell they ascended, and where her mother was following them up, flight after flight, until the father stopped at the top of the stairs and adjusted the child on his shoulder. He leaned into the heavy door there, sheeted in metal, riveted, creaking, and out they stepped into a world unlike the one she knew—an expanse of silhouetted smoke stacks against the night sky and distant lights shone like the closest of stars. The father set her down and she thought she might be walking on the wind, so slight and warm it came and with a smell of burning, and so darkly invisible was the blacktop floor beneath her feet, so enfolding the surrounding night. The mother pointed: there just above a far district of the city came the boom and crackle, the transient lights of the skyline pyrogenics. Sprays of blue light, and red. Pinwheels of gold. Pigeons circled over, their roosting disrupted. Clouds of colored smoke adrift. Globes exploded into silvered spiders and died. Stars shot up against gravity and whistled as they faded into the black. He had a surprise, the father told her: lights of their own—ones you could hold, ones that would crackle and sparkle on a stick. He struck a match, and held it to a magic stick. How bright it shone as it showered him with bits of light! Take one, the father said, holding it out to her. Here, he said, take it. Come on, just try. Fire! the child said. No! No! How afraid she was—such a silly child—much too afraid to hold one, and when another one was lit, the father showed her how the shower of sparks fell harmlessly upon his hands. See? he said. It doesn’t hurt. Nothing to be afraid of, the father said and he lit one again, and one after another. Come on now! the mother said. Don’t you trust your Daddy? But no no no, again and again, and when she was sure the last one had been lit, had sparkled itself out, fizzled all the way to the bottom of the stick, she told them: Yes, alright. Now she would hold one, now she will try. Too late! the mother scolded. All gone, the father said. Her own fault, father and mother told each other, the daughter being the child that she was: distrustful, disappointing. All gone, used up! She must cry now, she thought, and did. Stop it, the father said. Shush now, the mother said—the father having enough of it. Enough, he said and he opened up the big metal door. Take her, the mother said. You, the father said. Let’s go, said the mother to the child, lifting her unmotherly, roughly; pulling her down the stairs. They put in her bed—somewhat small for her size and still with rails for someone younger, but big enough. One last one! the child cried out. Quiet now, the mother said. Shut her up, the father called from somewhere. The child turned away from the mother. The wall there was a comfort: papered in pink with white leaves and birdies on branches, lightly flocked. She liked the feel of it, the fluff of the flocking, the pictures of birdies along the branch. The light was shut. The door was slammed. She had fooled them. This, she knew, was just the start. She pressed her fingers to the papered wall and could feel the father and the mother as well, at war a room away. But the birds there still perched along her fingers. She could feel them in the dark. And that was enough.)
With dusk and the appearance of the stars, it is time to gather up the implements of digging and take leave of the gravesite. This should be done without ceremony or additional words of farewell, for all that needs to be done has been done. To that end, it is customary to divert ones attention from the dead and to reflect upon creation by viewing the night sky. As Isaiah 40:26 bids the mourner, “Lift up thine eyes to see the stars and who it is that calls each one by name.”
Before storing away the shovel, wash away any soil that still clings to the blade. The wooden handle should be rubbed with tung oil to prevent drying and cracking. The blade should be re-sharpened with a file so it will be ready for the next usage. And it will be needed again, of course. There will always be holes to be dug, always the newly dead to be placed beside those long buried. There will always be those who lie waiting with the rocks and the stones and the lowly citizens of the loam. They will wait in the earth until the words of Isaiah 26:19 are finally spoken: “Awaken and sing, you who repose in the dust.” They will wait in the earth until the earth casts out its dead. But until then, there will always be digging to be done. There will always be a time when the journeyman Soil Shifter comes ’round and is briefly considered but turned away—his services not needed. Instead, someone else will raise a foot to the rim-rest of the shovel blade, lean his weight to it and pierce the earth. Someone else will lift a shovelful of the fecund dark that all of death becomes, and begin the singular mitzvah that offers neither reason nor recompense.
Pamela Ryder is the author of the novels in stories Paradise Field and Correction of a Drift. And the short story collection A Tendency To Be Gone.