The story of my mom’s burial actually started around a year before it took place, during my mom’s final visit to Israel to spend Sukkot with my family. While on a Chol HaMoed outing to a playground with my parents and younger kids, I noticed a large Charedi family, grandparents from abroad enjoying a nachas-filled visit with their married children and many grandchildren.
At one point, one of the married children called out, “Hi, Chana Jenny!” It turned out to be Brachie Miller, with whom I share a close friend in common.
Which led to her parents, Rabbi and Mrs. Rosenbaum from Baltimore, meeting my parents, Matthew and Gladys Freedman, from Baltimore. And they had a conversation about living in Baltimore and Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, where Rabbi Rosenbaum teaches, and which my parents had never seen, but were curious to hear more about.
A year and a bit later, my mom passed away. And I received an Email from Brachie. It turned out that Brachie’s mom, Mrs. Rosenbaum, was a volunteer with the Chevra Kadisha. And when she heard my mom had passed away, she said she would be happy to participate in her tahara, the washing and purification process preceding burial.
So that’s how a meeting at a playground in Israel ended up getting mom a Chevra Kadisha tahara in Baltimore.
When I got to the funeral home at 9:30 that Sunday morning, there were a bunch of Orthodox women there. I was wondering how these women knew my mom. But then one of them approached me and introduced herself as Brachie’s mom. With gentleness and sensitivity, she tore kriya with me. She and 6 other volunteers had arrived at the funeral home at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday to perform the tahara for a woman all but one of them had never met.
And that was just the first step of an outpouring of chesed from the women (and especially the JewishMOMs) of Baltimore which left me feeling so cared for, so supported, so embraced throughout the shiva, even though I was thousands of miles from home.
At the cemetery, my mother’s beloved long-time rabbi, Rabbi Daniel Burg of Beth Am, invited each of us there to shovel dirt into the grave to bury mom. Rabbi Burg framed the burial very powerfully for me, reminding me that burying the dead is known as “Chesed Shel Emet”: True Kindness, because this is a kindness its recipient can never ever repay. For all of our lives, Rabbi Burg pointed out, mom had performed countless acts of kindness for each of us. And this was our chance to finally perform this ultimate act of kindness for her, a kindness performed completely for its own sake, knowing mom would never be able to pay us back.
So as I placed 3 shovels-full of dirt into her grave, I whispered silently, “Mom, thank you for everything you gave me, since the day I was born. You gave me life. And you always supported me, no matter what. I can never repay everything you did for me. And now I am doing this final kindness for you.”
Experiencing these traditions 1st hand, rather than seeing another person going through them, enabled me to see the sensitivity, the humaneness, the beauty even, of a Jewish burial. And to realize that this is what I want for myself also, when the time comes.