Long waiting times & poor care in the V.A.

September 3, 2014

This is something different for Expired and Inspired. At the same time,this will not be another story about healthcare.  Rather, it will be about VA bureaucracy and respect for veterans at the end of life.

My childhood best friend’s father died recently.  As Steven put it, his father “was proud to have enlisted in the Army in 1953.  The smoke was still clearing in Europe after a war in which millions were killed because of their religious beliefs, and millions more had died fighting for their countries.  Like countless patriotic American Jews, my father was proud to serve a nation that stands for religious freedom.”  

Out of this pride, Mr. W chose to be buried in a VA cemetery. 

Although there was a wait of four days between Mr. W’s death and funeral to allow some very far-flung family to gather, we had to wait another day after that for the burial.  Even with a four-day lead time, the cemetery was unwilling to upset its schedule to accommodate religious practice.  (Mr. W. was fortunate that he didn’t want to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where the wait can be up to four months.)

More troubling than the delayed burial was being told that the cemetery would not allow mourners to stand next to the open grave and help fill it in.  Steve and his brother Ed came to bury their father, to actually do the mitzvah of burial.  They were distraught at not having the catharsis of hearing their shovels full of dirt thudding on their father’s coffin. 

Why would the VA not accommodate the religious freedoms that veterans fought to defend?  “VA policy, and it might disrupt our schedule,” answered the cemetery manager.  “It’s too dangerous, having mourners next to a seven foot deep grave with all the earth moving equipment around it,” answered the cemetery foreman. 

Fortunately, this story has a somewhat happy ending.

I called.  I bargained.  I tossed around words such as “significant comfort to the family” and “religious freedom.” The cemetery relented somewhat. 

Military ritual is dignified and beautiful.  Mr. W’s coffin was attended by an honor guard with the somber notes of “Taps” being played.  I stood in awe at the precision with which the ceremonial flag draped over the coffin was folded, thinking about the care with which my Chevrah Kadisha performs its rituals.  I teared up as one soldier knelt and presented the flag to Mrs. W with a hushed, “We are grateful for your husband’s service and are sorry for your loss.”

The immediate family was allowed five minutes to shovel dirt into the grave before the coffin-lowering device was removed.  The foreman thought that having the frame of the device was enough of a barrier against someone falling in.  The rest of us waited a short distance away where we formed the lines of consolation through which the family walked when leaving the graveside.  When the backhoe and mechanical tamping jack had restored the new gravesite to a perfectly even surface, family and friends were able to go back and mark the edges of the grave and have a few more minutes to say goodbye. 

All of us had some of our needs met, both family and cemetery staff.  The cemetery manager and the local rabbi agreed to try this new practice again.

As my friend wrote to the manager,  “by allowing my family to practice the ancient tradition of burying my father—even just for a few minutes—you honored him and what he so proudly served to defend.  The practice of family members … burying our dead may seem strange or even trivial, but allowing us to do it was a gesture that speaks volumes about what a grateful nation stands for.”

We changed practice at one VA cemetery in one corner of Oregon with a few clear and simple requests, and with the cooperation of staff and administration committed to honoring the veterans they serve.  What would it take to change VA policy so that all veterans of all faiths could have the right to practice their religion ― a freedom that they fought to defend ― honored at their death? It may be a small concession to allow it, but it is no small thing.


Dr. Michael Slater is president of the board of “>www.jewish-funerals.org/kavod-vnichum). He is a founding member of the Progressive Chevrah Kadishah in the Chicago area. Along with his family, he is a longtime member of Lomdim Chavurah. He is an emergency medicine physician with Sinai Health Systems in Chicago, and is an Assistant Professor at Rosalind Franklin University/The Chicago Medical School.

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSE: Chevrah Kadisha – Origins & Evolution

We want to acquaint you with the work of the “>Gamliel Institute is the leadership-training arm established by “>www.jewish-funerals.org) on issues related to Jewish end-of-life practices, and offers community and synagogue trainings and educational programs. In addition, Kavod v’Nichum holds annual conferences that focus on issues and concerns dealing with the topics of Jewish death, mourning, burial, and remembrance, including the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish practices from serious illness to death and mourning, as well as Jewish cemetery operation and maintenance.

The Gamliel Institute offers a program of online, interactive classes at an advanced level. The Gamliel Institute will be offering Course 1 (or 6): Chevrah Kadisha – Origins and Evolution – to begin October 14, 2014 (with an introductory logistics session on October 7). Course sessions will be on Tuesday evenings. This course is an in-depth study of the origins and history of the Chevrah Kadisha, the Holy Society that deals with the sacred tasks surrounding practical and ritual preparations of the deceased person for a Jewish funeral. The course further examines how the institution and role of the Chevrah Kadisha has evolved over the centuries and in different localities into the modern day.

Are you interested in taking this course? If so, please be in touch with any of us with questions, or sign up for the course at

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