Press "Enter" to skip to content

Divides: perspectives from a ten-person funeral

A week ago my great-grandmother Norma died. She was 102. It was sad but ultimately merciful. She hadn’t really been all there for the last couple years, and she lived alone in a retirement home in NYC, mostly cut off from a family whose own lives often kept them too busy to visit her.

We don’t think she died of the coronavirus. We aren’t sure what she died of. My sense is that no one was really too concerned about that. Dying is sort of just what you do when you’re 102 years old. That she had even lived that long was a blessing.

Even so, the event of her death couldn’t help being entirely about the virus.

I live in New Jersey which, as of this writing, has the second-most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, sitting at a whopping 40,000. This is less than a third of what New York is facing right now though, and if you had asked us the day before, we would have said that there was nothing that could have brought us to New York. Sometimes, though, your great-grandmother dies, and so I suddenly found myself in the car on the way to Long Island. Somehow it was decided that I would be included as one of the ten people that was allowed to go to the burial. 

I say burial and not funeral because the funeral was held over Zoom. My parents and I tuned in from the car, the black divides between each person’s virtual window making the isolation feel very real. The rabbi led the service, with people trying to chant along with him, and failing because of the delay. Afterwards some people, like my mom and dad, shared fond memories they had of Norma.

This part was more complicated than it could have been. My great-grandmother had a strong personality, and could be cruel to her daughter, my grandma. They kept their lives totally separate for many years. My grandma didn’t talk to her brother Jeffrey either, who was just as difficult. He had called my mom just a few days earlier to yell at her about certain members of the family who wanted to come to the burial, and who presumably had his own service with his side of the family. My grandma didn’t share any nice memories she had.

My parents and I tuned in from the car, the black divides between each person’s virtual window making the isolation feel very real.

The cemetery was in Long Island, where my great-grandfather had been buried more than a decade earlier, without whom my great-grandma had to live her life for most of the time that I knew her. I remember my great-grandpa only as a nice old man who liked to roll pennies into the kinds of stacks that you get at the bank. Though the Long Island cemetery was far removed from the bustle of Manhattan, just the fact of being in the Empire State made me feel like I was being contaminated. We had arrived first and we waited in the car for the others to arrive, occasionally speaking through the window to one of the masked and gloved funeral home employees. Eventually the others came and we were shown where to drive, the four cars making us into a somewhat underwhelming procession.

We all got out of our cars by the gravesite: My parents and I; David, who was my mom’s first cousin and Jeffrey’s son; David’s sister Lara, her husband, and their two daughters (both around my age); and the rabbi. We were only nine, though guidelines said we could be ten, because Jeffrey had been diagnosed with COVID-19 just a few days before. Due to their age, my grandma and her husband John had fled their apartment in Manhattan for their house upstate. They didn’t want to risk coming back. That’s what they said, anyway. The sky was clear but the world felt like it had lost some of its vibrancy.

The casket was already in the ground when we got there. None of us could say how long it had been sitting there. 10 minutes. An hour. 102 years. There was a tall pile of dirt next to the grave. The rabbi spoke with respect and good humor of this woman that she had never known. My mom was holding up a phone, streaming the ceremony for her brother’s family in Colorado, and for my grandma and John. At least six feet away, Lara was doing the same for Jeffrey, who called in from his sickbed. My cousins were crying. Their side of the family had always been closer to my great-grandmother.

It is a tradition at Jewish burials for all the mourners to shovel some dirt onto the coffin. David had brought his own shovel, so had Lara’s family. We hadn’t gotten the memo, and my mom had me run back to the car to get the disinfectant wipes so that we could clean off the handle of David’s shovel and use it as well. Funerals are normally a time when families can come together in their grief, but when he was done, David stuck the shovel into the mound of dirt and walked to a safe distance before I got the all-clear to go wipe it down.

Funerals are normally a time when families can come together in their grief, but when he was done, David stuck the shovel into the mound of dirt and walked to a safe distance before I got the all-clear to go wipe it down.

Later that night we had another Zoom call so that my grandmother could sit Shiva for her mother. The whole thing played out almost exactly like the funeral service earlier that day, but at the end something changed. People started telling stories about her again. Stories about the ratty old driving shoe that she would keep in the car so she could keep her heels nice. About how she surprised everyone on the trip to Paris when she suddenly revealed she was fluent in French by yelling at the taxi driver who picked them up from the airport. Stories about how she would always come over to take care of my mom when she was sick. At the end, the rabbi asked my grandma if she wanted to say anything, but, unlike earlier in the day, she didn’t stay silent. Instead, this time she took a moment before saying “It was nice to remember the good and kind aspects of my mother.”

Funerals are normally a time when families can come together in their grief, but when he was done, David stuck the shovel into the mound of dirt and walked to a safe distance before I got the all-clear to go wipe it down.

At first I was stunned. For years, nothing could have have made her say this. I’d never heard either speak well of the other. But the surprise was gone just as quickly. What we have all, as a species, gone through in these past weeks, my grandma had just gone through a hundred-fold. Though we are all separated from many of the people we love, forced to stay indoors and apart from one another, none of us imagine that this will last forever. What my grandma must have been feeling though, was that separation that comes with death, and the removal of the possibility of reconciliation. A quarantine from the mother she always wanted and now could never have. And I understood why that could cause such a change in her. We have all been forced to stop taking our friendships, relationships, and community for granted, because circumstances are trying to take them from us. But instead of being resigned to our situation, people across the country are reaching out for connection more than they ever did before. So to me, it is no wonder that in that moment of greatest separation, when a person is taken from your life, you are most able to forgive that person, and remember them fondly.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.