“Some people find this hard,” the rabbi warned us, as my brother and sister and I stood by my father’s grave.
He didn’t tell us, as he had at the funeral home, that this meant we didn’t have to do it. Not directly.
He’d told us a lot about the things we didn’t have to do. We didn’t have to follow the casket from the car to the grave. We didn’t have to watch that casket be lowered into the earth. And, yes, didn’t have to put the ritual shovelful of earth onto the casket once it lowered. All things, he explained, that many people found hard.
Through it all, my siblings and I stared at him dumbfounded. We were supposed to avoid doing things because they were hard? As if following, lowering, and shoveling were any harder than burying one’s father in the first place—a father who had never seen his children truly, who confused giving gifts with giving love, who I’d spent years trying to please and trying to reach until finally, in self-defense, I’d given up to protect myself?
As if we got to skip feeling the hard things if we skipped doing the hard things? Even then, we all knew better. We would have helped carry the casket, too, had we not been told that wasn’t allowed for liability reasons.
So after we assured the rabbi, yet again, that of course we wanted to perform this final ritual act, he went on to explain that putting dirt on a grave fell under its own special category of lovingkindness, because it was one of the few favors that could never be repaid.
Or even, I would think later, that we could hope might be repaid, because with my father, issues of reciprocity between parent and child, of the gap between how he thought he acted toward us and how he did act, had always been complicated.
But just then I waited, while my brother threw one shovelful into the grave, and then a second. I took the shovel in my hands in turn. The dirt was surprisingly light, and the tactile act of throwing it in, of hearing it thunk onto the wooden casket, was satisfying, necessary. I sent a second shovelful after the first. I could have kept going, could have lost myself in this deeply physical task and seen it through, but instead I stepped back, letting my sister take a turn as well.
And then I spent some time standing silent by that open grave, by that lowered casket, by all the things we were told we didn’t need to do, thinking about how while the rabbi had been right about other things that day, he’d been wrong about this, because I did need it. These rituals are here for a reason, after all.
I rode back to my father’s house in silence, too, but unlike the days before the burial, it wasn’t a turbulent sort of silence. It was a peaceful, grounded sort of silence, a transitional sort of silence, the sort of silence that let me know I was passing through something, into someplace new.
And now, a few days and a second plane ride later, I’m home.