The Funeral Director
By Shai Afsai
Schwartz stood in the shade of his funeral home’s green awning, searching the street for a sign of Rabbi Silverman. Tapping his watch lightly with an arthritic index finger, he turned to the usher beside him, a pimple-faced graduate student he employed at twelve dollars an hour.
“So where is he?”
The usher didn’t respond. Although he’d only been in Schwartz’s employ for less than a month, the usher had already concluded that it was best to exchange as few words as possible with the funeral director. His initial impression of Schwartz, formed during his interview, was that the old man was a toxic mix of impatience, pessimism, and hostility. Each moment spent in Schwartz’s presence since then had only confirmed that appraisal.
While funeral home ushering was hardly physically or intellectually demanding, he wasn’t sure how much longer he’d be able to endure it. Beyond the unpleasantness of Schwartz’s constant company, there was also the excruciating shame and indignity the usher felt at graduating summa cum laude from Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, yet finding himself working for twelve dollars an hour at a Jewish funeral home while he took graduate courses part time at a state college. His friend Benny Rodkoff was making close to $40,000 a year at The Washington Times, with no Schwartz hovering over his shoulder, and Benny had only gone to Brandeis.
The usher tried not to dwell on any of this as he waited beneath the green awning. He was hungry and eager to get the funeral over with. For now, at least he was in the shade, even if he was sharing that shade with Schwartz. The cemetery was sure to be blazing, its treeless pathways and granite gravestones heated up like a careless fire-eater’s larynx. To make matters worse, the usher had left his sunglasses at his apartment. He’d gotten into the habit of smoking a joint before coming to work, and while this practice helped pass the time and made Schwartz more tolerable, the usher was beginning to perceive that it might be impacting his short term memory. The week before, he’d forgotten his driver’s license. The day before that, he’d forgotten his belt and had to spend the hours at work continually pulling up his pants. Soon he’d be squinting in the cemetery sun — stoned, hungry, and wishing he were Benny Rodkoff.
Schwartz checked his watch. “Ten minutes late.”
The usher remained silent.
Schwartz shook his head. “I never have this problem with any other rabbi. What kind of man is this? Doesn’t he know that time is his friend? Hasn’t he any sense of obligation toward the mourners? The family waits and he’s not here.”
“Not here,” the usher agreed, also shaking his head. In cases where silence didn’t seem an option, the usher had settled on a strategy of simply concurring with whatever the funeral director happened to be saying.
“I don’t understand it. His children are grown. It can’t be his family that keeps him. And as for his professional responsibilities, what are they? Weekly sermons? Coaching boys for their bar mitzvahs? Weddings once in a while? Some counseling? It’s practically a part-time job. Maybe I should take it up when I retire so I’ll have something to do a few hours a week as a hobby.”
The funeral director paused for a response.
“As a hobby,” the usher concurred.
“Does he think he’s doing anyone a favor by showing up and performing his job? They pay quite well at his temple. He’s making six figures for his trouble.”
“Figures,” the usher said.
“He’s two or three decades younger and still, somehow, I’m the one standing here. Where is he? You’ve gone to college. You have a degree. Maybe you can explain it to me. I’m the one standing here,” the funeral director repeated, shading his eyes with his hand as he scanned the street. “I can’t understand it. I tell you, a man can mock time for only so long. And where’s the flower van? Business isn’t business anymore.” Schwartz checked his watch again and sighed.
The usher interpreted the funeral director’s sigh as the conclusion of this particular rant. He contemplated sighing, too, but was uncertain that doing so would sufficiently alleviate the need for words. There was always a risk in talking to Schwartz, no matter the topic, even one as innocuous-seeming as age, pets, or the weather. Any question or comment, however trivial, could backfire, and the usher still regretted how on an overcast morning a couple of weeks before he’d offhandedly asked Schwartz if he thought it were going to rain. Rather than answering, Schwartz had made the usher remove several dozen large black umbrellas from a storage closet, open and close each one to ensure it wasn’t broken or damaged, and then pack them all into the trunk of the funeral director’s Subaru station wagon. The day turned out entirely sunny. Upon getting back to the funeral home from the cemetery, Schwartz had the usher repeat the process in reverse, instructing him to remove the umbrellas from his station wagon, open and close each one again, and then return them to the storage closet.
Against his better judgment, but in order to fill the silence, the usher heard himself ask, “How old are you anyway, Mr. Schwartz?”
“What? Old enough I shouldn’t have to be standing out on the sidewalk in the heat of the day, inhaling the exhaust of passing cars, and talking to you. Wait. Look. Here comes the schmuck now.”
Rabbi Silverman arrived out of breath, smelling strongly of soy sauce and white wine. He’d been eating chicken with cashew nuts at The Cho-Zen, a kosher Chinese restaurant up the block from Schwartz’s Memorial Chapel, washing down mouthfuls of Asian cuisine with tall glasses of Chardonnay. The rabbi dined there regularly by default: most members of his Reform congregation preferred the non-kosher Asian fusion restaurants nearby, whose menus offered roast pork eggrolls and honey walnut shrimp, and so a meal at The Cho-Zen usually meant a meal uninterrupted by synagogue matters.
He’d ordered the chicken with cashew nuts nearly an hour before, but the waitress had taken her time bringing it out. The rabbi never rushed a meal, though, especially if it involved poultry, and had proceeded slowly with this one, too, requesting coffee with lemon meringue pie for dessert when he was done. He liked to officiate at a funeral on a full stomach, and a little wine buzz was always helpful.
Normally the rabbi enjoyed an early afternoon nap in the summer, but due to the funeral that wasn’t possible today. He lamented this fact as he leisurely sipped his coffee and contemplated the message in his fortune cookie — all this while Schwartz stood outside the funeral home with the usher, waiting and wondering.
The fortune read: A family member will make you proud. The rabbi desperately hoped this prediction was about his younger son, Mark. The boy had already failed the bar exam three times and would soon be undertaking his fourth, though not necessarily final, attempt. It seemed to the rabbi like an exercise in futility. But who knows? Maybe a miracle would occur. Maybe this time Mark might actually pass and the rabbi would enjoy some of the long overdue pride predicted by the cookie.
The rabbi considered the fortune from another angle, adding an “in bed” ending to it, the way his wife always did when they ate together at Chinese restaurants. A family member will make you proud…in bed. The rabbi wondered if this might be referring to his older son, Richard. Although Richard had gotten married a full six years ago, he and his wife had yet to produce any offspring that would give the rabbi some naches. Instead, Richard and Dianne had adopted two greyhounds, which they doted on and spoiled as if the dogs were human children, dressing them in matching outfits, buying them custom-made walking shoes, and taking them to an internationally celebrated pet therapist who, in weekly sessions, helped the beasts work through the trauma of their days at the racetrack.
At least Richard, though bereft of children, was gainfully employed, a successful dentist with a respected practice. The rabbi’s younger son, just turned thirty, was still single. And what sane woman would want him? Mark lived in his parents’ finished basement, drove about town in an ancient Buick bequeathed to him by his deceased grandmother, and filled his ever-expanding stomach with his mother’s cooking. The rabbi blamed his wife for the way Mark had turned out. She’d spoiled the boy and now they all were paying for it. Technically, though, the rabbi was the only one paying, since neither his wife nor the boy worked.
Beyond the monetary inconvenience, Mark was simply an embarrassment. Just the other day at synagogue, after Sabbath morning services, Rabbi Silverman had overheard two elderly women speaking in hushed tones.
“What kind of Jew can’t pass the bar after three tries?” Mrs. Klein had asked. “A dolphin could do it after so many times.”
“And I hear he’s going to try again,” Mrs. Sender said sadly.
“At this rate, the boy might as well become an accountant.”
Mrs. Sender rolled her eyes. “A doctor or dentist he won’t be, that’s for certain. Never mind a rabbi.”
“His poor parents. It’s a shame.”
Schwartz couldn’t believe Rabbi Silverman. Showing up late was bad enough, but to then also appear as an unwashed, soy-smelling vagrant was inexcusable. The man was sweating like a garment district rack pusher and Schwartz was sure he detected alcohol on his breath. Rabbi Silverman carried a wrinkled gray suit jacket over his arm, his tie was loose, his shirt food-stained and untucked, his underarms soaked, his comb over windblown and confused. It was a disgrace. And to think this slovenly fool now occupied the same position at Temple Kol Shalom once held by such a scholar as Rabbi Leon Westel. Now there was a rabbi who comported himself with decorum, and recognized the gravity of funerals, not like this schmuck.
Rabbi Silverman requested a yarmulke from the usher and was handed one of the paper-thin black skullcaps that form a staple accouterment of all Jewish funeral homes, and occasionally make special appearances on the heads of politicians attending Jewish religious functions around election time. He placed it atop his balding dome, where it sat like a small pyramid.
A Gentile, also without head covering, followed fast on the rabbi’s heels. Offered a yarmulke by the usher, the Gentile at first hesitated, then accepted it, looked at it uncertainly, and handed it back.
“Do I need this?”
“They like everyone to wear one,” answered the usher.
“I’m not Jewish,” said the Gentile. “I was a neighbor of—”
“You can still wear one.”
“I don’t know. I’m Catholic. What’s it for?”
The usher prepared to embark upon a well-rehearsed speech concerning the significance of skullcaps. It was a speech he enjoyed giving, as this skullcap-talk was the closest he came at his job to something resembling reporting.
But there was no need for the speech. The Catholic reluctantly accepted the yarmulke from the usher’s still-extended hand, though he didn’t place it on his head.
His jacket draped over his arm, his tie still loose, the rabbi entered the funeral home. The bare-headed Catholic followed.
Schwartz turned to the usher. “The world is upside down. It used to be only the goyim would show up asking for a yarmulke. Now the rabbi does, too.” He went into his funeral home without waiting for a response.
In the foyer, Rabbi Silverman straightened out his tie, tucked in his shirt, put on his jacket, and asked the funeral director about the deceased’s family.
“They finished viewing the body before you came,” answered Schwartz. “They’re in the family room now. We’re expecting a large turnout. His daughter is here. The one who—”
The usher, a stack of folded yarmulkes gripped tightly in his left hand, interrupted with information that the flower van had finally arrived and the delivery man wanted to know where to place the arrangements.
“All right. Excuse me, Rabbi.”
In the family room, Rabbi Silverman expressed his sympathies to the late Mr. Hirshbein’s relatives, shaking hands with the men and embracing the women. He removed a packet of black ribbons from his pocket and, after the family had appended them to their chests, ripped the ribbons’ perforated edges with proper solemnity.
The Orthodox Jews who held funerals in Schwartz’s Memorial Chapel still tore their clothing as an expression of grief at the departure of a close relative, but few others did so. A number of years ago, a clever textile manufacturer named Jakobowitz had lighted upon the idea of providing Jewish funeral homes with black ribbons that could be pinned to one’s clothing and then cut or torn, in lieu of rending an actual shirt or blouse. The ribbons were made from the same fabric as the paper-thin black yarmulkes that his factory, Jakobowitz Skullcaps and Sundries, Inc., already produced in bulk.
Schwartz hadn’t liked the innovation. He considered the black ribbon artificial, a thing akin to the hired wailers and embalmers of Gentile funeral homes. Not wanting to rip a piece of clothing, especially in America, didn’t comprise, to his mind, sufficient grounds for discarding a meaningful mourning practice going back to biblical times. The most affluent country in the history of the world, and people couldn’t even be bothered to ruin a shirt?
Rabbi Silverman, for his part, considered garment-rending a relic of biblical barbarity. Why destroy a perfectly good blouse?
Wearing her ripped ribbon like a medal, Mr. Hirshbein’s sister, Sophie, went to check on the flower arrangements. Although Sophie hadn’t given the funeral director any instructions at all about these flowers, she was certain she’d told him exactly what kinds she wanted and how she wished them to be placed. Her memory was no longer what it used to be and the strain of her younger brother’s passing only made matters worse. She was thus surprised to find that the vases weren’t laid out properly and that Schwartz had, for some reason, disregarded all her floral requests. She made to move the heavy vases. Her frail figure grew damp as she attempted to lift, shift, and rearrange them. She was dizzy and out of breath by the time the bareheaded Catholic, peering into the chapel, offered assistance.
His name was Anthony. He and Mr. Hirshbein had been neighbors, living in adjacent condominiums during the nearly two years that Anthony had managed to remain married to his second wife. Mr. Hirshbein was already an old man by then. Noticing that their neighbor was often alone, Anthony and his wife invited Mr. Hirshbein over for weekend cocktails, birthday parties, and Thanksgiving dinners, and a friendship formed.
After his divorce, Anthony moved out of the condo, conceding it to his ex-wife, but he continued to keep in touch with Mr. Hirshbein. Soon he was having the elderly man over for dinner with his third wife, a buxom woman so much younger than Anthony that even Mr. Hirshbein — who had grown up in an era when it was still common, if not preferable, for men to take wives many years their junior — was shocked. While Anthony’s new wife prepared coffee in the kitchen, Mr. Hirshbein pulled him aside, wondering aloud about the propriety of such a union.
“What are you thinking, man? The girl could be your granddaughter! How can you imagine this will work? It’s utter foolishness. You’ll be in diapers before she turns forty-five. Are you so frightened of loneliness that you must be married at all costs?”
Anthony assured him that love would prevail. “We’re nuts about each other, Herb. You’re worried about nothing.”
When Mr. Hirshbein concluded that it was time to put his condo on the market and relocate to a retirement home, he contacted Anthony, asking if he and his wife might be interested in anything from the apartment. The couple selected several pieces of art, some jewelry, and a cherry wood table with claw feet. After a lengthy argument, Anthony succeeded in forcing some money on Mr. Hirshbein. Giving in at last, Mr. Hirshbein said, “Fine. I’ll take it. But I tell you right now, you can do with this check much more than me. You truly should start saving, son. You’re going to need every available penny and then some to handle that new wife.”
From time to time, Anthony stopped by the retirement home to check in on Mr. Hirshbein. Their conversations gradually turned somber, with Mr. Hirshbein delivering grand summaries of his life in an attempt to impart some of his hard-earned wisdom to the younger man. “I love life, Anthony. I’d stick around for another ninety years if I could. My body’s failing me every which way, but I’m in no rush to get out. That’s how I know I’ve lived well. That’s how you need to live your life.”
During one such visit, Mr. Hirshbein gave Anthony a pair of gold cufflinks. Though they bore the initials H.H., Mr. Hirshbein insisted he take them, saying, “Anthony, every gentleman should have gold cufflinks and a proper tie chain. People notice how you look and you ought to notice, too.” In addition, he gave Anthony a solid gold crystal dome Longines, referring to it as “a gentleman’s watch.” He was particularly critical of Anthony’s attire that day. “Look at you. You should start dressing like a man, Anthony. You can’t go prancing about town in gym shoes and a baseball hat, without even a watch with which to tell the time of day, and expect to be taken seriously. Where’s your dignity?”
They continued to meet for meals occasionally, though less and less as Mr. Hirshbein slipped into senility. One of their last evenings together took place during particularly humid weather. Anthony arrived in a t-shirt, shorts, and Birkenstocks to pick up Mr. Hirshbein for dinner. The old man, whose outfit included pressed pants, suspenders, and a bowtie, was plainly offended.
“What’s the idea?” Mr. Hirshbein asked. “Haven’t I taught you anything? Haven’t you got the sense to go out properly dressed? No wonder you can’t keep a wife. You think women don’t notice clothes?” Later, during dinner, he stared for some time as Anthony worked his way through a steak, and finally exclaimed, “Did wolves raise you? Haven’t you ever learned to chew? You eat like a damned animal!”
After Anthony’s third divorce, they lost contact. Anthony had been surprised to learn that he was mentioned in his old neighbor’s will. The sum left to him, $2,500, didn’t alter his financial situation — he was a public school teacher with a steady income, modest needs, and remarkably, given his marital history, no alimony payments — but it made him feel good to know he’d affected Mr. Hirshbein’s life to a degree that the man had thought of him fondly while so close to dying. He wore the gold cufflinks and Longines to the funeral.
A sizable crowd had gathered in Schwartz’s Memorial Chapel. The usher, overwhelmed and confused by the sudden influx, and by now quite stoned, began asking people if they would like a guest book and telling them they were welcome to sign the yarmulke.
The embalmer appeared from a side door, wiping his thin white hands on a handkerchief, and began filling a plastic cup at the water cooler. Schwartz believed that any embalmer, and undoubtedly one so slender, pale, and suggestive of death, ought to be an unseen presence in a Jewish funeral home, relegated to its back rooms and basements. He eyed the embalmer coldly.
Schwartz wasn’t a licensed mortician himself and until recently couldn’t have dreamt that his chapel might require the services of an embalmer. But ever since he’d come to terms with viewings and open casket funerals, several embalmers had accrued to his payroll, making mannequins of the deceased. Schwartz didn’t particularly dislike this embalmer — a middle-aged man named Jenks who also worked at a local funeral home patronized mostly by the Irish and Italians — at least no more than he disliked most of the people he worked and interacted with. It was just that the reality of embalmers in his funeral home struck him as intrinsically wrong. When he first complained to Rabbi Silverman about the trend of embalming requests, the rabbi had told him not to fret, saying, “Our forefather Jacob and his son Joseph were embalmed in Egypt.” Schwartz shot back, “Jacob had two wives, two concubines, and children from four women. Are you recommending this to your congregants?”
Schwartz walked over to Jenks.
“Big crowd, eh, Schwartz?” gurgled the embalmer, refilling his cup. “Did they like my work?”
“I didn’t hear any complaints,” Schwartz said.
In actuality, Schwartz’s customers were visibly pleased with Jenks’s results. Schwartz, too, was impressed with how skilled Jenks was at his craft, and admired his close attention to detail, though he could never bring himself to voice these facts to the embalmer. Let such skillful attentions be given to Gentile corpses.
“I did a fine job on him. He never looked so good while he was breathing, I assure you. Made him seem at least six, seven years younger.”
The embalmer gulped a third cup of water and vanished through a side door. He’d hoped to catch a private moment with the usher, but between the guest book and yarmulkes the poor kid was swamped. A few weeks before, Jenks had caught the usher smoking a joint in the parking lot behind the funeral home. The usher had begged him not to tell Schwartz and was relieved to discover that the embalmer was more interested in finding out the grade of marijuana, and if the usher would be willing to sell him some, than in telling Schwartz what he’d seen. They discussed quality and cost, and agreed on a price. The usher gave Jenks half an ounce on the spot and promised to bring more the next time they worked together.
While Jenks’s wife was a yoga instructor — and still as toned, fit, and shapely as on the day they’d married — embalming wasn’t a profession that called for great doses of testosterone. It lacked any of the vocational sex appeal associated with firefighters, policemen, or divorce lawyers. And the effects of this were painfully apparent in the bedroom. The carnal flame of Jenks’s matrimonial life required constant kindling, the dull embers of its passion forever in danger of being extinguished once and for all.
The embalmer had recently confided all this to his neighbor, a pigeon-chested actuary, who divulged that marijuana had temporarily saved his marriage to an airline stewardess. In the end, she left him for a Puerto Rican boxer she’d met during one of her overseas flights, but for a short while it looked like there might be hope.
Jenks’s stumbling upon the smoking usher in the parking lot had seemed like a gift from heaven. That night, while his wife put the children to bed, Jenks, after several attempts, managed to roll a functional joint. He asked his wife to join him in the backyard. Giggling about how she hadn’t smoked pot in years, not since her youngest sister’s bachelorette party, the embalmer’s wife took two deep drags. She coughed noisily, eliciting a series of barks from a neighborhood dog, and passed the joint to her husband.
The plant worked its magic. A few puffs of the usher’s weed, coupled with a glass of wine, and his wife was like a prom girl. To the embalmer’s mind, what had followed in the past weeks hadn’t fallen far short of the sex they’d enjoyed in their twenties, before they were married and had children, car payments, a mortgage, and a retirement fund. He hoped the usher, who struck him as possibly being a forgetful type, had remembered to bring the ounce of marijuana.
Rabbi Silverman, his jacket on and his tie properly knotted, ascended the three steps to the platform at the front of the chapel and tapped the microphone on the podium. It made no sound. The usher abandoned his stack of yarmulkes and rushed to turn on the speakers. For several seconds they emitted loud, persistent feedback. Elderly men and women in the pews winced and adjusted their hearing aids.
Mr. Hirshbein’s relatives emerged from the family room and the funeral director seated them in the front pews. The casket stood directly below and before the podium.
“Mr. Hirshbein,” Rabbi Silverman began, and then stopped, stared at the casket for several seconds, and gently shook his head. “Mr. Herbert Hirshbein. Herbert. Known to some of you by his Yiddish name, Hershele.”
He paused again, as if to let the crowd absorb the deep significance of his opening words. Adjusting the pyramid atop his head, he raised an arm to heaven in supplication, and then seized the podium firmly with both hands. He continued, more loudly:
“A man loved by many, as testified to by this large gathering to honor him and afford a measure of comfort to his grieving family, some of whom we shall soon hear. His sister Sophie and his son Max will speak to us and eulogize Herbert. Together we shall have the opportunity and the privilege to remember Herbert Hirshbein. For though Herbert was a simple man, in his simple way he left an inimitable impression upon all he came in contact with, a permanent mark upon all whom he met, the way a bee forever changes the flowers it touches.”
The rabbi was particularly pleased with his simile and paused to let the audience appreciate it, as well as his use of inimitable.
“I first met Herb at the temple,” the rabbi continued. “He came every Saturday and was one of the first members to make me feel at home when I was a new rabbi here. Those of you who know Rabbi Leon Westel know I had some outsize shoes to fill. Herb enjoyed listening to my sermons and always told me what he thought of them — exactly what he thought of them — in his simple, direct manner. I think I’m a better speaker for this. I’d like to imagine that he’s listening to my eulogy right now, no doubt already finding fault with one aspect of it or another.”
Chuckles arose from the crowd. The rabbi resumed in a softer voice, deeming it most effective to follow humor with quiet words. “Friends, there is a time for living, and a time for dying. Friends, death is part of life. Though it saddens us all greatly, we need not fear it, neither for ourselves nor for others. We know Herb is in a better place.” He reached into the inner pocket of his suit jacket and removed a small black book. By itself, it opened to a well-creased page, and he recited Psalm 23 in English.
At the psalm’s conclusion, the rabbi shut his eyes. As he opened them, he closed the small book, returned it to his pocket, and gently shook his head. “Mr. Hirshbein’s sister, Sophie, will now say a few words about her brother,” he whispered into the microphone.
Satisfied with his speech, Rabbi Silverman seated himself in a chair on the platform, and Sophie rose. She held her head high, walking slowly to the podium. Clutching several pieces of loose-leaf paper in her left hand, she grappled with the microphone, causing it to again emit loud feedback as she attempted to lower it toward her mouth. Finally succeeding, she rested the pages on the podium and began smoothing them out, her short frame visible only from her perforated black ribbon upward. The papers smoothed to her satisfaction, she cleared her throat.
“I thank you for all coming,” she read. “It means so very much to me. I would like to tell all of you a little about my younger brother, what kind of person he was, or at least how I saw him. We were just two siblings, Herb and I.” Her voice cracked, and she paused to regain her composure. She removed a handkerchief from her blouse and held it to her mouth, clearing her throat.
“Herb was born in America. I was born in Russia, but he was born here. How my parents were proud of their American-born boy! He did not have the accent they had. When people asked him his name, even when he was a little boy, he never said Hershel. He said Herbert. We, his family, still called him Hershel, Hershele, Heshy. But he was an American through and through, even if he read the Forverts and could tell a Yiddish joke better than anyone.”
Murmurs of assent arose from several of the elderly men and women in the pews, and Sophie lifted her eyes from her papers to meet the gaze of the crowd. She resumed with greater confidence.
“He married an American-born girl, Rose, may she rest in peace. He loved Rose with all his heart. He adored her. Together they had Max and Samantha, my niece and nephew. Two lovely children. When Rose died so young, so unexpectedly, he had to raise them on his own. And he tried his best. He worked hard in the clothing business to provide for Max and Samantha, but he was also often away from home. That is what comes with being a purchaser. I tried to help. Maybe if Rose had not died so young, what happened might not have happened. But Herbert, even though—”
Sophie paused and smoothed her papers on the podium. “When he was a boy, my parents put Herb in cheder. Oh, how he fought against it. He protested so much, they let him have his way, and he went to public school. He played basketball and was very popular. He always had many friends and girlfriends. When the war broke out he was seventeen. He said, ‘I am going to volunteer to defend my country.’ He did not wait to be drafted; he ran to the draft office. He told our parents that now that he, a Jew, could hold a gun and fight against the Germans and the Japanese, it would be a crime for him to wait one minute more than necessary.”
She paused and looked down at her nephew. “When Max had his bar mitzvah, Herb made him study with the very same rabbi he had run away from when he was in cheder. It was ridiculous. The old rabbi could hardly speak English. Max did not know Yiddish. But this was the way Herb wanted it. He had never sent the kids to Hebrew school. But that bar mitzvah, it was right after Rose died and—”
She stopped. Tears streamed down her face and she dabbed her eyes with the handkerchief. “When Samantha met Sebastian and brought him home, Heshy had a fit. Samantha told him, ‘He was a soldier just like you were.’ But Heshy yelled, ‘You will not marry a non-Jew! Don’t you dare bring him in my house ever again!’ She did not stop seeing Sebastian. I tried to reason with Heshy. I told him this is part of being in America. We might not like it, but this is part of being here. Samantha married Sebastian, even though Heshy said he would never speak to her again if she did. He did not go to the wedding. He did not meet the grandchildren. He never once saw them. Herbert was stubborn and that was what he decided. And I do not know… I do not know… if it… if…”
Unable to speak through her sobs and properly conclude her eulogy, Sophie made her way unsteadily down from the platform. She moved toward the casket, reaching out to touch it with the hand in which she held her handkerchief. “Oh Hershel! Hershel!”
Max helped her to the front pew, where she sat crying as he ascended the platform.
The usher, entering the chapel, found the still-bareheaded Catholic leaning against a wall at the rear, and joined him. The embalmer, emerging from a side room, wiped water from his pale lips with the back of his hand and took his place beside the usher.
“Were you able to bring that thing we talked about?” Jenks asked.
The usher thought for a moment. He vaguely recollected the embalmer asking him to bring something, but couldn’t imagine what. “Uh. Sure. Maybe. Remind me again.”
The embalmer lowered his voice to a hopeful whisper. “The weed?”
The usher stared at him blankly.
The embalmer’s heart sank. “You said you’d get me some more weed.”
“More weed?” The usher dug through the accumulated dust of his memory for a trace of such a conversation, but came up empty-handed. “Did I say that? I’m sorry, bro. I forgot all about it. Look, I’ll hook you up next time we work together, no problem. Just remind me beforehand.”
Jenks’s disappointment was too great for words. He’d gotten a haircut that morning, he’d stopped by Victoria’s Secret at the mall to purchase a lace-trim red babydoll for his wife, he’d bought a fancy bottle of Pinot Grigio, her favorite wine, and made certain their children would be out of the house for the evening — all in anticipation of the marijuana and the magic it would work. And now, nothing. It served him right, he realized, for entrusting the success of his marriage and the resilience of his romantic life to a burnt-out grad student.
For his part, the usher promptly forgot about this conversation and returned to daydreaming about having a byline in the New York Times.
Normally, the funeral director only half-listened to eulogies for people he didn’t personally know. Sometimes he succumbed to a catnap during these speeches, waking up, as by instinct, the moment that portion of the service was over. But though he’d never had any substantial dealings with Mr. Hirshbein while the man was living, he’d listened carefully to Sophie’s eulogy, her words touching him in a way he hadn’t anticipated. The world was upside down and this woman understood that well. Things weren’t what they used to be. These were days of paper-thin yarmulkes and perforated black ribbons. Of embalmers and open-casket viewings. Of rabbis who couldn’t grasp the concept of time, and showed up to funerals sweat-stained and intoxicated. Time wasn’t time and rabbis weren’t rabbis. Even funerals were barely funerals.
Max surveyed the crowd. “One word to describe Dad would be obstinate,” he began.
Chuckles from the crowd dissipated some of the tension left by Sophie’s speech. As one, people shifted in their seats.
“His life revolved around his family, his business, his temple, just as you’ve heard. And also his friends — all of you here today,” Max continued. “Rabbi Silverman has said my father was a simple man. I disagree. He was anything but simple. He was the most complicated person I’ve known and I never figured him out. Now — now he’s gone. Few people knew that he was a great lover of poetry. He especially liked Whitman and Frost. And he wrote his own poetry, too. I’d like to read you a poem of his that I found when going through some of his papers yesterday.” Max opened a brown leather journal to a bookmarked page. “It’s entitled ‘To Samantha’:
“Why? The question itself is hard to phrase.
How? Even the subject is difficult to raise.
And an answer? How could that be given,
To why a daughter, from her father, is driven?
To how a man loses a wife one day
And on the next his daughter is driven away?
There are, most especially when troubles unfold,
Principles to which one must wholeheartedly hold.
Those are the sole possessions of this earth,
That mark a man and set his worth.
But moan and cry, weep and wail
That there is such, and so much, betrayal:
A woman and her father, a man and his daughter
Become air and earth, become fire and water.”
Max closed his father’s journal. “He was my father. I didn’t always understand his actions, but I always loved him. And now he’s gone. Goodbye, Dad.”
Max descended from the platform and his sister rose to embrace him. Weeping, she buried her head in his chest.
Schwartz imagined that if he was a man still capable of tears, he too might be crying now. Family bonds were sacred and it saddened him to hear such words. At the same time, Schwartz marveled at Hirshbein’s resolve. The deceased seemed to him a man made entirely of unbending iron and dense metal. His tenacity was nothing short of incredible. Schwartz doubted he could ever be so steadfast on an issue relating to his children and grandchildren. Part of him envied Hirshbein’s commitment. There was a man who believed in things, and whose actions followed those beliefs to whatever conclusion.
The rabbi stood and approached the podium. “Please rise,” he said.
As the crowd shuffled to its feet, the rabbi began singing in thickly American-accented Hebrew, his voice cracking and breaking repeatedly as he struggled in vain to reach the highs and lows dictated by the mournful tune.
“After the service we will proceed to the Brownwood Park cemetery, where Herbert will be brought to his final resting place,” Rabbi Silverman announced when he was finished.
The funeral director raised an arm perpendicular to his body, and pointed a crooked finger at the casket. The usher and embalmer hurried down the aisle. Gravely, with downcast eyes, they wheeled the casket to a side door leading out to the waiting hearse. Schwartz followed. The family, friends, and relatives of Mr. Hirshbein watched as his earthly remains passed.
Outside, the limousine and hearse drivers helped the usher and embalmer lift the casket into the hearse.
“It’s a heavy one,” the limousine driver said.
“I did a fine job on him,” the embalmer said. “Made him look eight, nine years younger.”
The usher slammed the hearse door shut as a gust of wind carried away his thin black yarmulke. Schwartz, watching it soar through the air, wondered where the yarmulke would land.
Standing on a treeless pathway, the gravediggers observed the approaching funeral procession. The hearse, at the front, was trailed by the limousine and a dozen or so cars, all with their headlights on.
“Hot today,” said Habel. “I should have worn a wicking shirt. Once I start sweating, I can’t turn the faucet off. Not like my wife. She never sweats. I have to fight with her to have a little AC at night. I beg and make promises for every temperature drop she concedes. Nobody warns you about that before you get married. Nobody says, ‘Do you take this woman to have and to hold in a hundred degree bed when she won’t let you turn on the central air?’”
“Yeah, it’s hot today. It was hot yesterday and it’ll be hot again tomorrow,” said Carmelo. “It’s called summer. In a few months there’ll be something called winter. Then for sixteen weeks you can tell me every day how cold it is.”
“You’re in a nice mood.”
“Maybe it’s the weather.”
The hearse pulled up alongside the gravediggers.
Here we go again, Carmelo thought. What a job. Death and more death. And Habel. Always Habel. Carmelo had quit construction and gone into cemetery work because the benefits were better and the income was steadier, and also because he was somewhat anti-social. He loved his wife and children, but he liked time to himself, to think and reflect and contemplate, and figured a cemetery would be as quiet a space as any to work in. He’d grown tired of listening to the men on his construction crew go on about their ex-wives, their ungrateful children, their hangovers, their girlfriends’ cooking, their dogs’ idiosyncrasies, and the ups and downs of their favorite sports teams, while all he wanted to do was put up sheetrock and pound some nails in peace.
Instead, he now found himself working with a man who couldn’t keep quiet for a moment, and who was forever offering his commentary and opinions on everything from politics and the economy to relationships and the weather. Carmelo went home each evening with Habel’s voice ringing in his ears and subconscious. He heard it in the shower, echoing through the running water, and it followed him into sleep, invading his dreams.
Sometimes he thought how easy it would be to just dig one more grave, smash Habel with a shovel across his ever-moving jaw, shove his finally-silent body into the hole, and be done with him once and for all.
The hearse driver and usher got out of the vehicle and waved to the gravediggers.
“Give us a hand?” asked the driver.
“It’s a heavy one,” the usher said.
The four men moved to the back of the hearse and removed the casket. They bore it to the open grave, on either side of which were two mounds of newly overturned earth with shovels in them. The soil was dark and thick, full of large stones and chunks of upturned grass and — as this section of the cemetery had formerly served as a place for the burial of worn or unusable Jewish religious articles — dozens of tattered Hebrew books, their covers gone, their pages torn, as well as faded blue-and-white prayer shawls. Habel and Carmelo centered the casket atop the thick straps that covered the grave.
Rabbi Silverman, putting on the yarmulke he’d been given at the funeral home, stepped out of his SUV and walked to the limousine. Schwartz was already there, ready to greet the family. After being given the signal by Schwartz, the limousine driver opened the back doors and the family exited. Max held his Aunt Sophie’s arm, helping her out of the car. Samantha and Sebastian held the hands of their children. Rabbi Silverman led the family to the gravesite, where the other mourners had gathered. Habel and Carmelo began slowly lowering the casket into the grave.
“Friends,” Rabbi Silverman began, adjusting his yarmulke, “Herbert now rests beside Rose, his beloved wife. We will soon recite Kaddish, the ancient mourner’s prayer. At this time, the custom is for anyone who wishes to do so to place some dirt in the grave. There is a superstition not to do this in the usual manner. Instead, we use the back of the shovel.”
The rabbi picked up a shovel and demonstrated. Most of the soil slid off the back of the shovel before reaching the grave, but some made it inside. He placed the shovel back in one of the mounds.
“Please. Anyone who wishes to, come forward. Be cautious not to step too close to the edge of the grave. We don’t want anyone falling in.”
Schwartz had listened to the rabbi give inaccurate descriptions of the burial procedure many times over the years. Because the rabbi told the funeral-goers to shovel only a bit of soil before saying Kaddish and concluding the ceremony, they walked away from the grave with the casket scarcely covered. After the friends and family of the deceased returned to their cars and drove away, the gravediggers, fine people perhaps, but Gentiles who didn’t know the dead man or care for him one bit, shoveled in the rest of the soil themselves, or simply pushed the mounds in with a backhoe. Schwartz had seen this happen again and again.
He now felt a powerful urge to intervene. Schwartz suddenly grasped the extent to which time was, indeed, Rabbi Silverman’s friend. The rabbi could treat Judaism’s sanctified practices as superstitions and archaisms because, increasingly, the ones who might know he was wrong were here, buried beneath the earth, unable to correct him. The more time passed, the fewer the Jews in America who knew the old ways and traditions or the reasons behind them. While he lived, Hirshbein had guarded what mattered most to him, despite the awful consequences. Was it fitting that in his death those same traditions he gave up so much for would be disregarded without objection? Burials were no longer burials, but was a man not still a man?
“Rabbi Silverman is mistaken,” the funeral director spoke up. “We use the back side of the shovel for scooping up the first one or two bits of earth. This shows our sadness that the dear man has passed and our reluctance to bury him. Then we fill in as much as we want or can in the normal way. We put the shovel back, rather than handing it to someone else, so that each person will take up the shovel for himself. A little sweat and exertion is demanded. We wish Mr. Hirshbein were still here and that we didn’t have to fulfill this duty altogether, but helping to bury him is one of the greatest acts of kindness we can display. It is a selfless act, for we know he can no longer repay the favor.”
Rabbi Silverman’s face turned red. “I have ordination and degrees from Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary,” he responded in a low growl. “If people want to know which casket to choose or about floral arrangements, they’ll ask a funeral director. They’ll ask Schwartz of Schwartz’s Memorial Chapel. I’m a rabbi. Are there any other rabbis here? No? Then I’ll explain how to bury.”
“I think Mr. Hirshbein would want to be buried by his friends and family,” the funeral director attempted, but neither the rabbi, nor anyone else, responded. Schwartz had been swiftly defeated.
Samantha and Sebastian, Max and his wife, and Sophie had already shoveled in their bits of soil and rejoined the group, and now several others followed suit.
When the assembled had had their turns at the shovels, Rabbi Silverman said, “We shall now recite Kaddish.”
Schwartz distributed little laminated booklets to Sophie, Samantha, and Max. Led by the rabbi, they attempted to say Kaddish in unison, stumbling over the transliterated Aramaic words.
The rabbi gave the grave a final look. “This concludes our service. Shiva will take place at Sophie’s home until five p.m. The address is 412 Lowden Avenue.”
People began returning to their cars. The funeral director approached the mourners in order to escort them to the limousine, but Rabbi Silverman intercepted him. “I’ve got this covered, Schwartz. Maybe from now on, when I’m officiating, you’ll just handle what goes on in your funeral home. I’ll take care of all the rest.”
The limousine driver waited for a cue from the funeral director before opening the doors. Schwartz gave the signal and then walked over to the grave and peered inside. Mr. Hirshbein’s casket had almost no soil covering it.
After the limousine and hearse had pulled away, the rabbi’s SUV and the other cars departed, and with only the funeral director’s station wagon remaining, Schwartz picked up a shovel. It was relatively easy for him to lift a little earth with the back of the shovel and drop it into the grave, but after scooping up more soil his back began to throb. This was strange soil, densely packed. Filling up the entire grave was obviously out of the question, but there was also no way he’d be able to even cover the casket. Out of breath, he put the shovel on the nearest mound.
Stepping forward, Habel and Carmelo each took a shovel and began rapidly piling earth into the grave. After a few minutes, Habel stopped. “I’m getting the backhoe. It’s too damn hot to be doing any more of this by hand.”
“Fine,” said Carmelo. Though he enjoyed the physical exertion of digging and filling a grave, he figured he’d at least have some peace and quiet during the time it would take Habel to reach the backhoe, start it up, and make his way back. The funeral director hadn’t left yet, but Carmelo didn’t mind the old man.
“He was a friend of yours, Mr. Schwartz?”
“I can’t say he was.”
They stood silently by the grave for a few minutes, but Habel returned with the backhoe much sooner than Carmelo had hoped.
“Careful, Mr. Schwartz,” Habel shouted over the engine.
Habel maneuvered the backhoe to one of the mounds and began pushing it effortlessly into the grave. The casket vanished beneath the falling soil, stones, and upturned grass, and beneath books, pages, and prayer shawls. Habel reversed, made his way around several headstones, and drove toward the second pile. When he was finished, most of the soil was gone. He cut the engine and jumped down from the vehicle.
Schwartz watched as Habel and Carmelo, picking up their shovels, deftly scooped the remaining soil into the grave, burying his traditions.