Death is a part of life. How we die is an expression of how we have lived. For those who remember us, it is often our final moments and last wishes that leave the most lasting impact. In leaving this world we can teach our greatest lessons.
Increasingly, people who live Jewish lives seem less concerned to have a Jewish burial. Yet the ceremony of farewell—how we say goodbye, the grave where we rest, the prayers uttered at our passing— are a vital legacy for those who follow us. We should not die in a manner inconsistent with the way we lived. If we wish to be part of the Jewish people and to transmit its values, our death is as powerful a statement as our life.
The very first piece of land Abraham buys in Israel is a burial plot for Sarah. To this very day that cave in Hebron is a religious site. Our ancestor’s burial ground carries associations for our own lives. From the Bible onward, Jews have returned to the earth; not with the violence of burning a body but with the gentle, natural process of burial.
For a body to be cleansed and a shroud to enfold you is a way of affirming the deepest ideals of our tradition. A physical form is a vessel of spirit. The visible world bears holiness and should not be destroyed.
It is important to have a place to visit, to bring stones, to remember, to weep.
I never met my grandfather, my father’s father. But I know where he is buried and when possible, I can visit the grave and feel some sense of connection to the man who died tragically young, but is responsible for my own life. Future generations will be grateful to have a place to visit us as well; a small corner of earth that is their own sentinel of memory. A Jewish burial brings the richness of the tradition, the depth of comfort and the promise of future recollections. It is our past and our promise.
To be buried as a Jew is a statement to eternity.
Rabbi David Wolpe
The Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple