My aunt passed away on Thursday morning. My husband and I drove right away up to a LA for a tough weekend of mourning and condolence - as the niece of the deceased I found myself in the difficult position of being both a mourner and a consoler. Most of my own grief has been dealt with in private moments, while in the company of my uncle, parents, grandparents, and cousins I tend to withdraw from my own feelings of sadness and try my best to be there for them. The funeral was on Friday - in Jewish tradition we bury the dead as quickly as possible so the healing process can begin. My aunt Rema is the closest person to me to ever pass, and I have never felt so close to the heaviness and sadness that comes with the loss of a loved one. Dealing with a loss has pulled me away from the day-to-day routine of my life. It has brought me to contemplate both the fragility of life and its temporality.
Another Jewish tradition surrounding death is that we physically bury the dead ourselves. All of the family, and others who choose, shovel the dirt into the grave. I suppose that this is to help us feel the cycle of life as we return to the earth -- as do all living things that pass -- and remind us that our body gets recycled to allow other things to grow.
It is not easy to return to life after being so close to death. This is one of my favorite passages about life and death from the opening of Vladamir Nabakov's autobiography, Speak, memory:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence... What particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.