Second of two parts. Read part 1 here.
In the Jewish tradition we do many extremely time-sensitive practices around death. We do not leave our dead alone from the time of death until the time of burial. We sit shomer. The word shomer means guard. So, we guard the person with our presence. We recite psalms and make sure nothing untoward happens. Then we ritually wash, purify and clothe the person in a shroud and wrap them in a sheet like a cocoon and place them in a plain pine box, or in Israel, just in the ground without the casket. Men prepare men and women prepare women. When we are washing, we always protect the dignity of the person and cover their genitals and breasts. We recite words from the Torah, specifically the Song of Solomon/Song of Songs, exalting each part of the body. Here are some excerpts that we say.
“....Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
behold, you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats
leaping down the slopes of Gilead.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in rows of stone;
on it hang a thousand shields,
His legs are alabaster columns,
set on bases of gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
choice as the cedars.
16 His mouth is most sweet,
and he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend...”
And, so in this way, the final body experience a person has is this loving honoring of their body. The quotes above are just a few examples. The whole process takes anywhere from two to four hours and requires three or four people. Because Reuven was found and retrieved by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, he was at the Coroner’s in Eureka. In order to sit Shiva we had to arrange with them to have folks in their front entrance be able to sit and recite psalms. The local sheriff and coroner and all of their staffs were amazingly kind and accommodating. Search and rescue folks who are usually volunteers also deserve praise for their service.
When the Coroner’s Office was closed, we set up chairs outside the building. This huge feat was accomplished via Facebook and word of mouth and the organization of this was done by a local doctor from the Chabad community. Rabbi Eli also helped the coroner find Reuven’s next of kin, because Reuven had been part of the Chabad community and they have connections everywhere, so rabbis were called in Flint, Michigan to get the phone numbers for Reuven’s sister Deborah who lives in New York. The coroner could not release Reuven’s body to us until permission was granted by his family. It took hours to figure this out and we were all in shock and mourning at the same time. Once Rabbi Eli had spoken with Deborah, a new set of tasks was set in place which had to do with getting a burial plot for Reuven that was kosher by Orthodox Jewish standards.
As a Jewish Renewal and Reform Jewish woman, this is not a requirement of mine nor of my community, but it was for the Chabad community. Since they also loved and claimed Reuven and had the resources to purchase a plot quickly, they started that process. At first, we thought we’d have to send Reuven to the Bay Area, but this didn’t really sit well with all of us who knew and loved him. This was his home, his beloved home. He was not a city guy, he was a country man, a wild, Earth-loving man. So, Rabbi Eli and his community set up a fund and raised enough money to buy 10 plots at the Trinidad Cemetery. These plots then had to be roped off and consecrated as Jewish land according to very specific rules. All of this took place in the course of two days, which would take most folks weeks to get done.
Jewish tradition mandates burial within 24 hours of death, which we could not do, because of laws around bodies found not in the care of a doctor when they died. The need for all the local agencies to complete their investigations so Reuven’s body could get taken to a mortuary where we could prepare him for burial was just one part of this process. Then, without ever having done so before, Rabbi Eli and two other men from the Orthodox Jewish community lovingly prepared Reuven’s body for burial. Temple Beth El provided the casket and shroud for Reuven, who had no money or family to pay for the cost of his burial and funeral needs. Chabad created a fund to cover costs as well and between our two communities coming together in his honor and memory, he was lovingly and traditionally cared for. The same woman who had arranged around the clock-sitting shomer while Reuven was at the Coroner’s Office coordinated it for us at the Ayres Family mortuary where we prepared Reuven for his final physical journey.
He was found Sunday morning Aug. 4. He was identified positively on Tuesday by our community. He was released by the coroner on Wednesday late afternoon. He was prepared for burial on Thursday and his burial was in Trinidad on Friday Aug. 8 at 3 p.m. We cannot and do not deal with death on the Sabbath. So, getting him buried before the Sabbath began on Friday evening, Aug. 9 was critical.
There were over 150 folks at his burial service led by Rabbi Eliyahu Cowen. It felt right to put Reuven to rest in the sun at the top of the Trinidad Cemetery. We then could begin to grieve and mourn, having dealt with the very intense details around his dying and getting him laid to rest. Rabbi Eli talked about how we were “tucking him into the earth he loved.” He gave a beautiful eulogy.
Dear friends of Reuven’s, Amanda Devons and Jerrylyn Rubin, were traveling in Israel when they learned of his death and saw my post on Facebook alerting folks about where and when events were happening. Amanda volunteered to write the obituary that ran in the Mad River Union. She did this from Israel, where she felt so bereft over his death, and wanted to honor him from afar.
Folks from Israel, New York, Europe and all over the world have mourned his death and all have had stories about how he improved, helped or informed their lives and made their time on this earth more joyful.
He was probably a Lamed Vavnik: “The Tzadikim Nistarim (Hebrew: צַדִיקִים נִסתָּרים, “hidden righteous ones”) or Lamed Vav Tzadikim (Hebrew: ל”ו צַדִיקִים,x” 36 righteous ones”), often abbreviated to Lamed Vav(niks), [a] refers to 36 righteous people, a notion rooted within the more mystical dimensions of Judaism.” – Wikipedia
Because Reuven’s burial happened right before Shabbat, those of us who are observant all had to rush home to make Shabbat. See my blog post: Shabbat Structure, Simply Divine Spiritual Technology) for more of an understanding of how the Sabbath is observed. Before leaving the cemetery, we let folks know that a memorial would be held on the following Tuesday at the Arcata Vets Hall and that all were welcome. Again, this was organized quickly by the Chabad community and enabled folks from all over, who loved Reuven and were not Jewish necessarily, to come and pay homage to him.
Our Rabbi Naomi Steinberg also organized a series of memorial events for the Sheloshim (30 days) from death observations. We traditionally sit shiva which means we mourn for seven days from the time of burial in the home of the mourners. Since Reuven’s next of kin were very far away, different members of the community hosted dinners or times during the first seven days and the Tuesday memorial was one of those.
It was at this event that so many disparate groups of folks came together to honor his life and memory. This is where the kayakers were told to come to learn about the man they’d rescued. It’s also where I heard their story for the first time. Their truly spectacular kindness and efforts on behalf of an unknown body floating among the rocks and waves of Humboldt County is a testament to their goodness and the miracles surrounding Reuven.
It’s taken me three months to write this piece and to navigate my tremendous grief. I’m still sad every day. At the Sheloshim observances we did a joint Chabad and Temple Beth El clean-up/pick-up trash in Sequoia park as a way of honoring Reuven’s memory. Being outdoors and doing good were ways to not only remember Reuven but make our sadness for his loss into something positive for the earth. This is also a traditional Jewish practice around death, to donate your time or money to a cause that would have been supported by the deceased. We also had a final coming together back at Temple Beth El where folks could share again, or for the first time, their memories of Reuven. And this was followed by a potluck meal, which Reuven would have thoroughly enjoyed.
As I sat in services for Yom Kippur and we read the names of all our beloveds who have died during the Yiskor/Memorial service. I cried again for the loss of this man from my life and the lives of all our communities and from his siblings’ lives. I still feel his presence and continue to beseech him to act on our behalf and help us take better care of each other and this earth in danger.
If anyone can make miracles happen from across the bridge between this world and the next one, it is my dear beloved brother Reuven. In his absence, we all of us who love him, or who are moved by this story, must commit anew to being kinder to each other and more flexible with one another’s differences and finally to skip and cavort and laugh and honor and protect the earth, and all her creatures, as if she was our most beloved dance partner. As Reuven would insist,
“Next time for a Simcha!”
May you be comforted among all those who mourn and let us say Amen.
Second of two parts. Nicole Barchilon Frank lives, loves, creates and writes from her Open Heart, Open Hands home in Bayside. You can see more of her writings and work at ohohands.com.