“Hi Celine,” “Hi Michael,” my grandma says as we walk between rows of gravestones. We climb up the rocky hill, and she talks to more people. Dead people. My grandma on my mom’s side of the family loves to visit her buried relatives—it is her way of still socializing with those who are gone.
In Hebrew school, we learned the Mourner’s Kaddish, but never really discussed Heaven and Hell. In fact, we were never actually taught the meaning behind Mourner’s Kaddish; all we did was repeat the Hebrew words after our teacher and become prepared to recite them when the occasion someday arrives. Yitgadal. Yitgadal. V’yitkadash. V’yitkadash. The prayer in memory of the dead was the closest we got to learning about Jewish death rituals and beliefs and it doesn’t even mention death. The prayer does not say anything about loss, mourning or the person who died. Its focus is on G-d, praising G-d, and recognizing that G-d and everything that comes from G-d is great and therefore everything that occurs is ultimately great as well.
I would be lying if I said I was the type of person who always looks at the glass as half full. But there is something comforting about having someone to turn to in a time of dire need, to feel like you have a constant purpose. In Judaism, immediate family of the deceased sit Shiva, which means seven in Hebrew, a seven day period of mourning. It is stressed that Shiva is for the mourners, to create an atmosphere of comfort and a community, and not for the dead. When people first come to the house of Shiva from the cemetery, traditionally, visitors wash their hands with a pitcher of water left outside so as to cleanse themselves metaphorically as they go from a place of death to a place of life. All week family and friends visit the mourner’s in one family’s home to give their support. While that may sound reassuring, it is actually quite exhausting. For seven days you must get dressed up and make half-hearted conversations with your grandma’s best friend’s mom’s daughter, pretending like you are so grateful for their presence. “Thank you, thank you so much for coming, it means a lot to me.” The sentences get repeated over and over again, and people sit around the house eating trays of cookies and deli meat sandwiches. The food never seems to run out. But this is not a celebration! I want to yell. Our relative just passed away! All I feel like doing is curling up in a ball in bed with a stuffed animal, and crying until no more tears will come out. And then sleeping. But no one lets you be alone. You aren’t supposed to be alone. There is no time for fading into your own thoughts. And as you sit on the couch in your dead relative’s bare apartment, with guests you have never even met in your life, you notice that in that corner chair, over by the fireplace, that’s where your Grandma should be sitting.
While I’m not sure that death happens for a good reason, as some may choose to believe, I am sure that G-d gives me a sense of comfort whenever I lose a loved one. For the two minutes, three times a day it takes to say the Kaddish, I like the idea that those are three minutes to myself, to my own thoughts—G-d doesn’t interrupt or offer condolences, he just listens.
Left to my own devices, I used to read books about Heaven that described Heaven as above us, as a place that exists beyond the clouds. In Judaism I was told that there is no Hell. But I was never told if in Judaism, there is an afterlife. While I believe in some sort of afterlife where people go and reconnect with loved ones, I never gave in to that notion of it being in the sky. We bury people in the ground, so wouldn’t it make more sense that afterlife exists beneath our feet?
As a little girl I wanted to write stories where the main characters died. I never understood why the protagonists always got to live, as if they were invincible. Plots where the main character lived bored me—because they were predictable. And then, people in my life started dying and I no longer wanted to write about or think about death. Somedays, when the pain of the unknown hits me real hard, I close my eyes and try to envision the world I will someday live in— I squeeze them shut real tight until I can see blues, greens, and reds floating in a spiral through the blackness. I can’t bear the thought that one day I simply won’t be here. Yet, something in my faith has always made me remain hopeful, even if just for seconds here and there. Hopeful that when we die, we won’t just be silent corpses laying buried under piles and piles of mulch.
Visiting cemeteries is often associated with darkness, strokes of lightning and creepy ghosts. As I walk behind my grandma and look at the tombs, I’m not overcome by the supposed spookiness. Instead, I feel wrong walking on the graves, interrupting something. How rude of me to disturb the party going on below my feet. No one made it my place to barge in on the middle of my grandma’s cousins enjoying a nice day at a carnival, eating cotton candy and laughing.
I picture the faces behind the marked engravings. I feel certain that underneath the grass, piles of mulch, and coffins, there is a world where life continues. A world that is always sunny and never stops smiling. Last year my grandma on my dad’s side of the family, Gummy, passed away. I’m not allowed to visit her grave yet. It hasn’t been a year, the Jewish amount of time before visitation. An unveiling ceremony takes place during the first year after death. Like the funeral and the Shiva, the physical act of unveiling the monument allows for family members from far apart to come together and continue their mourning and painful grieving. For those who were unable to attend the funeral, the unveiling is another chance to acknowledge one’s loss. Over time, these different steps in the mourning process can be healing for mourners.
As I watch my grandma chatting with her dead relatives, all I want is to visit Gummy. Suddenly, I feel the gravestones beneath my feet disappear and cobblestone appear in their place. The sky has turned bright blue, the crowded space of the graves converted to vast open land. And then, there she is. Slightly taller than me and hair standing high, thin enough for the wind to ruffle through it, but alive with color. As if just moving in to this other world, Gummy lugs a black suitcase with a pink string behind her. The same suitcase she had always brought to visits at my house. From the suitcase she pulls out a large, clear container of Matza ball soup, which she puts into a refrigerator I had only just noticed was there. In fact, I was so distracted by Gummy’ presence I hadn’t noticed the place was filled with people spread over a territory that seemed never ending. There was every type of environment one could want. For my Gummy, it was a kitchen. After putting the soup away she calls out “Let’s surprise my mother by making supper before she gets back, won’t that be real nice?”
Her mother. My great grandma. Where my name Malka comes from. That Malka died before I was born. Most Ashkenazic Jews (Jews of Eastern or Central European origin) are named after a family member who has died, with hopes that the newborn will take on the virtues of his or her namesake, but I never learned where that family member goes. This must be where she went. My dad always says that growing up he spent hours with my great-grandma in the kitchen, as she cooked her favorite Matza ball soup. Every Friday night the smell of raw eggs and chicken would float through the walls of her apartment. Now it added up. That must have been where all the Matza ball soup Gummy brought to my house over the years came from. It was her mom’s recipe.
Papa, Gummy’s husband, walks in to the large kitchen that had appeared around Gummy, and smiles at her, looking fresh from a walk, which he always loved. They pull out the ingredients to make potato kugel. Eggs, potatoes, oil, potato starch. The same recipe I used to make with Gummy for Passover.
When I was in 5th grade, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Papa passed away. And on Yom Kippur last year, Gummy passed away on the anniversary of Papa’s death. It was a sign of their love and a beautiful image of them rejoining together in a peaceful, unified harmony—where in death they shared one more thing. While I didn’t learn much about death in Hebrew school, I did learn that miracles are the Jews claim to fame. My grandparents contributed to our Jewish narrative by passing away on the same date on the Hebrew calendar, years apart—a miracle of their own.
Papa’s passing was the first time I had ever experienced the death of a close person I loved. I remember thinking how big of a deal it was to miss a whole week of school. When I returned from his funeral, my classmates had all written “I’m Sorry for Your Loss Cards” for me, pieces of colorful construction paper folded in half and filled with childish drawings of a grandpa made with markers and colored pencils. The cards meant the world to me. When I came home from school that day, I placed each card into an individual three holed plastic sheet, and then placed all the plastic sheets into a red binder. To this day, that red binder sits at the top of my bedroom closet, not opened often, but treasured almost like a sacred book.
I was not sure what to do with myself when the week of mourning was over, and my time in Pittsburgh with my extended family had ended. My immediate family returned to Cleveland, to school, to work, and supposedly life was supposed to precede as normal. But life was not normal anymore. Papa was gone. Every moment I spent not thinking about him, I felt guilty. I started a journal, white with pink and purple flowers all over it and kept secret with its own silver lock. Each evening I wrote in it, opening with “Dear Diary Papa” and telling my grandpa about my day.
Entry Date: 9/21/07
Dear Diary Papa,
My grandpa Papa has died. I hope the pains are gone Papa. I love you! I am really sad.
The Jewish custom is to bury a person as soon as possible after death, often within 24 hours, but no longer than three days after a passing. Until the burial of a passed one, it is believed that a soul remains in limbo between earth and Heaven, not fully part of one or the other, and we don’t want to delay their entrance to Heaven. The mourners also exist in a state of uncertainty after death, and until the funeral happens, they cannot begin the process of moving forward. Jewish law requires that human remains be buried after death, and with this being the case, a casket becomes their final homes. It was always really important to me that I could visualize in every detail Papa’s last place of rest.
Entry Date: 9/23/07
Dear Diary Papa,
The funeral was today. I rode backwards in a limousine. We all cried at the cemetery when Papa was being buried. His casket is dark brown wood with a Jewish star in the middle.
G-d bless Papa! Grandfather! And a dad and a husband, we all love him forever! I love you!
Evidence that my belief in an afterlife being below our feet is nothing new:
Entry Date: 10/22/07
Dear Diary Papa,
Yesterday when I was writing a card to Gummy I literally almost wrote Papa. Are you getting used to life down/up there? I miss you! I love you!
My final diary entry to Papa. A sense not that he will ever be forgotten, but that life does continue for mourners, even after death:
Entry Date: 3/13/08
Dear Diary Papa,
Today I cried about you, which I have not done in a long time. I really tried hard not to, just for you, but I couldn’t help it. Mommy doesn’t know I did though. I carried your picture with me and hugged it. My sister’s Bat-Mitzvah is in a day less than a month. I know you will be with us in our hearts. I love you! I miss you!
When I think about it now, I wonder, was I writing to Papa? Or to G-d? I seem to talk to them in similar ways. Through my head. In silence. On paper, or in my thoughts, inventing ideas. Perhaps G-d is made up of all the souls who have left this world and gone to someplace else. Perhaps G-d is the single representation of all the loved ones who are no longer visible to us, but who are always there. Perhaps all those people together is what makes G-d so holy, so special. Maybe that is why I always feel comforted by the existence of G-d because I feel like G-d already knows me so well.
When I pull out that journal, it smells like lavender, after years spent locked in a box next to all kinds of scented hand lotions. I take in the luscious odor, imagining that that too is how the afterlife smells. Since Gummy’s death, instead of via journal, I have conversations with her in my mind around milestones. I hear myself speaking on the phone with Gummy, telling her about my day, and feel slightly comforted. I know she hears me. I’m certain she knows everything that goes on in my life. But I do wonder how people in Heaven hear those who are still living. If all day long they heard voices coming from up above their heads, that would be a ton of ruckus, a ton of noise. Do they have megaphones they listen to us through? Or, do they put their ears up to a metal can connected to a string which invisibly leads from one world to the next? Sometimes I envision one of those red telephone booths like the ones in London, where those in the afterlife go to dial in to the world above. But that does not make sense to me, because how would they make sure not to miss anything? I don’t think people are constantly running back and forth to ensure they don’t miss a single word. Maybe, comments just go right to them, clear only to the ears of the desired.
More comforting than my conversations though, I’m comforted by picturing the world under my feet that Gummy and Papa now live in together. While the kugel is in the oven, Gummy and Papa leave the kitchen, walk off the cobblestones, and go hand in hand through the green grass. You wouldn’t know that this world exists beneath our feet. There is no crumbling pieces of dirt falling from above, no gloomy greyness. This place is its own unique entity. Gummy and Papa watch the little children running around, glance up at the blue sky, and look at the white clouds. These are two people who will never be separated again.
The cobblestones fade and the sky returns to a frightful hue. Time has passed and now my family and I arrive at the cemetery for the unveiling ceremony, the first time we will see Gummy’s gravestone uncovered. I walk through the wet lawn, over to the place where I know my grandparents lie. Slowly, I place a tiny stone on top of each of their graves, my hand lingering for a moment on the graves’ surfaces, feeling the smooth texture of the gravestone, as if the movement sparks a connection between me and my loved ones. Placing stones on graves is a common tradition in Judaism, but not a commandment. While there are many interpretations behind this custom, I’ve always chosen to look at it as flowers die, while a stone does not and therefore can represent the permanence of memory and legacy. Finally, I look down at the ground and, like my grandma, whisper, “Hi Gummy,” “Hi Papa.”