My mother’s body laid lifeless in front of me, wrapped thickly in a sheet and resting on a table in plain view. Her head and her feet were nearly indistinguishable.
I approached the rabbi to perform the traditional keriah, the ritual tearing of a mourner’s garment. He cut a small piece of my shirt with a blade and instructed me to rip it further. The sound was jarring, and it echoed throughout the crowded chapel at Eretz Hachayim, a cemetery just outside of Jerusalem.
Choking back tears, I approached the lectern to deliver my eulogy, one of several that day. After the eulogies, we said the Kaddish prayer and my Mom’s body was lifted by the men of the chevrah kadisha, or burial society, and carried in a somber, solemn procession to the gravesite she selected several years ago.
It was a mere 13 hours after she died at Hadassah Hospital following a three-week coma.
In Israel, burials happen quickly. They are stark, intimate, raw affairs. There is no casket, no hearse, no funeral-goers in fancy outfits; rather, everyone desses simply. The sheet-wrapped body of the deceased is within sight of everyone, and at the conclusion of the service it descends straight into the earth with no protective casing.
Just three weeks earlier, a call came in the middle of the night that my ailing 91-year-old mother had a seizure and fell into a coma. I took the first flight out from Los Angeles and was at her bedside every day throughout her coma, along with my three siblings who live in Israel.
Mom lived in Israel for 12 years, moving there at 79 after my father, Rabbi Benjamin Groner, had died. For Rebbetzin Frances Groner, living in Israel was a lifelong dream come true. She thrived and flourished in the Holy Land, making new friends, creating a wonderful community, and volunteering and fundraising for numerous causes like Amit Women, Hadassah, Herzog Hospital, Bikur Cholim Hospital and the League of Special Children, to name a few. After more than 50 years serving alongside my father at pulpits in Chicago, Windsor, Omaha and New Orleans, she had finally come home.
I visited her often in Israel, and watched her grow older and frailer over the years. She had suffered a stroke in late 2004 and subsequently declined in health, particularly in the last few months. It was sad to watch such a formerly vibrant woman full of energy and life — a woman who thrived on doing good deeds for others, especially hosting countless guests for Shabbat and holidays — looked after by a caretaker.
Suddenly, Mom’s life was but a memory as her body was swiftly lowered into the ground and shovelfuls of earth were placed upon her. We, the mourners, said Kaddish again, then turned and walked away to begin shivah, the week of intense mourning.
Several hundred people visited during the shivah — friends and relatives, neighbors and acquaintances, even several Los Angeles friends who were visiting Israel. It felt as if the entire nation was mourning with us. Everybody knew just what to say.
In Israel, visiting a shivah house is commonplace and everyone experiences it. Large posters in big, bold type announcing a person’s death and surround a shivah house, so it’s impossible not to feel the loss.
The shivah visitors shared their poignant stories and wonderful memories of Mom. Although I knew about her many admirers and how people adored her, I didn’t know how many lives she’s touched.
“I really want to emulate your mother, her kindness and her concern for others,” said one 19-year-old fan who just began his service in the Israel Defense Forces.
The shivah experience was draining at times, exhausting on occasion, but also invigorating — it was, essentially, a celebration of Mom’s life. Then suddenly, when the shivah ended, we were all thrown back into the real world. Of course, life will be rather atypical this year, as I’ll be saying Kaddish during morning, afternoon and evening services at synagogue every day in memory of Mom.
After returning from five weeks in Israel, I’m grateful for many things, including the caring, professional Hadassah Hospital staff and fellow hospital visitors — Jews, Arab and Christians — whom I befriended. We shared similar fears and concerns about ill family members, and we supported one another. I’m thankful for all the chessed, or lovingkindness, bestowed upon us by volunteers who provided complimentary daily and Shabbat meals.
I’m also indebted to many caring friends, acquaintances as well as my fellow congregants at Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Elazar Muskin, all of whom supported me during this crisis. They shared their concern and offered much-needed hope and sustenance during some very bleak days. Every e-mail and call I received lifted my spirits and consoled me in the midst of much difficulty and pain.
Finally, I’m grateful to the Almighty for having given me such a remarkable mother who, by example, taught her many offspring about the beauty of Judaism, how to lead meaningful lives and how important it is to do chesed for others. May her memory be a blessing.
Lewis Groner is director of marketing and communications at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org