If someone had told me that my husband would die suddenly at the age of 37, leaving me with two small children, I would have thought she was crazy. Yet it did happen. I grew up in a Protestant faith where death was treated quietly, stoically and individually. My husband, on the other hand, grew up in a Jewish household with different traditions related to death and mourning. Over the years I have attended Jewish funerals, shivas and unveilings. However, it was not until my husband died that I came to fully appreciate Jewish burial and mourning practices.
The first thing I learned is that Jews and Christians are prepared differently for burial. Christians are usually embalmed while Jews are not. Jews are wrapped in a shroud while Christians bedecked in their own clothing. Stephen looked so natural and comfortable swaddled in his white shroud. He looked like he was taking a nap.
When my parents-in-law and I went to the local funeral home to order Stephen's casket, the disparity between the type of coffin my in-laws wanted and all of the other caskets could not have been more startling. Set apart from the show room of caskets made of different woods, finishes and detailing were two modest pine boxes adorned with a small Star of David. One was stained, the other unfinished. The insides were bare.
I remember looking at those modest boxes and thinking to myself that my in-laws must be mistaken. However, the truth was that Stephen was dead and he had no need for detailing or comfort. His job was to return to the earth. When looking at his burial with this new perspective, it made complete sense to order his modest casket.
An intrinsic part of a Jewish funeral is witnessing the casket being lowered into the ground and then taking turns shoveling a bit of dirt on the coffin as a means to say farewell and to establish closure with the deceased. I have never experienced such a tradition during a Protestant funeral. A minister usually says a few prayers and then the mourners leave before the casket is lowered. Watching Stephen's pine box descend as the rabbi recited prayers, and then shoveling earth onto his coffin forced me to snap out of numbness and denial, if only for a few minutes. Those two events are practically all I remember of the day.
The Jewish faith offers structure to mourning. Following the funeral, hundreds of people descended upon my home for shiva. In the Protestant faith, family and friends gather for a meal after the funeral and then leave the survivors to mourn and grieve on their own. Shiva is traditionally held for seven nights, but Stephen died between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and we were required to have a shorter one. Shiva helped me transition from abject shock and numbness to mourning in the comforting and supportive environment of family and friends. Three years later, I still feel humbled and blessed by the outpourings of love during those five days and nights.
About seven months after the funeral, I ordered Stephen's headstone. In the Jewish faith, unveiling the headstone carries dual meanings: marking the gravesite, and the beginning of the end of mourning. The unveiling involves a small ceremony that is similar to a funeral with prayers, memories recalled, and a meal afterward. It can occur any time on or after the first Yahrzeit, or anniversary of death. Although I had mentally prepared to unveil Stephen's headstone, I was still overcome with grief when I lifted the cloth. But later in the service, I was able to laugh recalling and hearing funny stories about my husband as told by nieces, nephews, his brother and sister, my children, my brother and parents-in-law. What a relief it was to have that day under my belt!
I like to present Stephen's Yahrzeit to my two children as a positive experience commemorating their father's brief, robust life. Each year we light at least one memorial candle because each child usually wants his own. We also eat a few of Stephen's favorite foods, share stories and look at photographs. I view the anniversary as a constructive means to consciously acknowledge the death and the life of my husband. I also feel that observing Stephen's Yahrzeit allows me the opportunity to think about the past year and the progress I have made healing during that time.
In addition to my Yahrzeit practices, my in-laws' synagogue names Stephen in the hazkarat haneshamot, or naming of souls, during memorial services on his Jewish Yahrzeit. I find comfort knowing that he has not been and will never be forgotten.
The Jewish faith is steeped in constructive burial and bereavement practices. Each requires a certain level of mindfulness and carries significant meaning. Shoveling dirt into Stephen's grave made me emerge from shock to acknowledge his death while shiva provided comfort for me, friends and family immediately afterward. And each event after the shiva has required me to take a break from my busy life to remember my husband and analyze my own journey through grief. For that I am grateful, for I have come a long way.