At the Chapel
Her name was Jacqueline Levine and she died last Saturday. Death was quick; a deep breath, a questioning sound, a fall to the floor and it was over. Her husband John Givre ran upstairs to the bedroom where he had heard a thump on the floor. He found her.
Nothing could be done to save her, not by John, not by the EMTs, not by the hospital staff. Jackie (as her friends and relatives called her), age 77, had passed.
The funeral service would be on Tuesday at the Boulevard-Riverside Chapel in Hewlett, New York. Jews bury their dead as soon as possible. There are no funeral homes with the preserved body lying “in state” for all to see. Instead, it is a closed-casket chapel service and then the burial.
I have attended several chapel services for Jewish friends and I prefer these to the religious ceremonies of Christians, particularly Catholics where the priest is the center of attention and the liturgy is full of pomp and circumstance and loads of fine-smelling incense. At many of those, there are no eulogies from family or friends; just the priest talking about a person he may not even know. Nothing beats a priest getting the name of the deceased wrong.
It is far different at a Jewish chapel service. The rabbi will say or sing some prayers and then he introduces some members of the family and friends to give their thoughts of the deceased. There’s little pomp and circumstance. But there are deep feelings. The family and the deceased are the focal points.
At Jackie’s funeral her two sons, her daughter, three of her granddaughters and her husband spoke. They were articulate, funny and gave a glowing tribute to a woman of great character and personal accomplishments.
Jackie helped so many people and was such a great mother and grandmother that her life, careers, and personality came across clearly to the large audience of mourners. My wife, the Beautiful AP, had become Jackie’s friend in the last 14 months. In that time AP developed a deep love for this woman.
John Givre looked out over the mourners and told us “Jackie was an atheist. She didn’t believe. I however believe everything. I look down,” he pointed towards the coffin covered by a religious flag with the Star of David emblazoned on it, “and Jackie’s body is there. But Jackie’s soul, her spirit, her being is not there. I do not think of the word ‘was’ when I think of her. I think of the word ‘is’ for Jackie is with all of us now. She is with us. My greatest sorrow today is that I will never be able to kiss her again. I will never be able to kiss her.”
At the end of the service Jackie had requested that Johann Sebastian Bach’s first movement of cantata Du Hirte Israel, 104 be played. .
When the chapel service was finished we rushed first to the bathrooms and then to the parking lot so we wouldn’t miss the procession to the cemetery. We needn’t have rushed. It took about a half hour for the procession to get going.
We were parked right near to the exit gate but a guy in a cruddy little red car decided he wanted to get directly behind the hearse so he zoomed over there, partially blocking us from getting into the forming procession.
But God has some wicked sense of humor, even at funerals. As the hearse was about to pull out of the lot, the little red car wouldn’t start. The guy in the red car was banging on the steering wheel trying to process his predicament, and, yes, wonder of wonders, we managed to get in front of him. He held up the whole funeral line while he tried to get his car to start. It finally started and he was right behind us. And we were right behind the hearse.
“Well,” said the Beautiful AP. “We won’t get lost this time as we did in Staten Island for Freddy’s.”
The burial of Jackie was at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, New York, only a few miles from the chapel. Since we were right behind the hearse I didn’t worry about losing sight of the procession. The cruddy red car behind us seemed to herk-and-jerk occasionally and once or twice I could see in the side mirror its driver worrying and searching for an explanation for his car’s sudden recalcitrance.
When we arrived at the Beth David Cemetery we had a long wait before we were lead to the gravesite. There was paperwork to be done and evidently one driver had made a wrong turn. That was John Givre, Jackie’s husband.
We drove up a small hill and I looked out over the expanse; this is a graveyard the way Manhattan is a city—packed with headstones going back over one hundred years. Many famous people are buried in this cemetery and now Jackie would be one of those, as she was famous to us.
The hearse finally stopped after a long trek through this city of headstones. We were at the gravesite. This would be our first Jewish graveside service.
“AP,” I said. “Look at the grave,” I pointed. “They didn’t take away the dirt.”
“I see,” she whispered.
“Do they just leave it there and when the ceremony is over the gravediggers shovel the dirt in?”
“Maybe,” she said.
We got out of our car. The little red car pulled up, the driver hopped out, relieved to have made it. It was the rabbi!
The gravediggers—who looked exactly like gravediggers look—were taking the coffin out of the hearse now. It was just a plain wooden box; nothing like the elaborate coffins we have always seen at Christian burials. This was a family plot; maybe they didn’t have enough money for a flamboyant burial box? How could that be when everyone here lived the truly comfortable middle- and upper-middle-class life? A plain wooden coffin?
“AP,” I whispered as we approached the grave. “Where’s the fake grass?” Christian burials feature AstroTurf to cover the dirt around the grave.
AP shrugged, having no answer.
“I expected something more elaborate, you know,” I said.
“I know,” she said.
They placed the coffin over the grave on wooden planks. There was a shovel in the dirt near the foot of the casket.
“Are the gravediggers just going to use that shovel,” I pointed, “to fill in the grave when everything is over and we’ve all left?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
Then the rabbi—a young guy—spoke. I think he was saying a prayer but my attention was on the gravediggers.
(Oh, my God!)
More shovels were brought out and slammed into the dirt around the grave. The rabbi told us that we will all get the chance to shovel dirt into the grave. We needed to fill the hole in a certain way.
I turned to AP. “This is horrifying,” I whispered. “They actually bury the person.”
“I never knew this,” she said.
We have four couples with whom we are close friends—three of the couples are Jewish and one member of the other couple is kosher (go figure that one!), but I never knew this was how a person was actually interred. Interred? Placed in a hole and buried by those who loved them.
The rabbi explained that the first shovelful is to be done with the shovel upside down “to symbolize that this is hard.” Then, he said, the person is to spear the shovel back in the dirt, to symbolize that this is a bitter task. The next mourner takes the shovel out of the dirt.
Jackie’s son, Danny, quietly and graciously invited us to shovel dirt, if we so desired. AP briefly told him that we are from a different tradition and this is very new and shocking to us.
AP shoveled dirt into the grave four times, the first with the shovel upside down.
“It’s so final,” she said to me softly.
Stunned as I was, I said: “It is so final. There’s no pretending here. This is what it really is. This is it.”
“This is it,” she said. “Jackie is dead and buried.”
“By us,” I said.
“By us,” she said.
When the grave had enough dirt in it, we formed two parallel lines for the family members to walk through as we offered our words of comfort for them. I touched each family member on the shoulder. I didn’t know any of these people, except for John Givre. I didn’t know what to say. Yet…yet, I felt for each of them.
I am still reflective of this experience. I never knew; I never knew. AP never knew. She never knew. This burial had more a feeling of sacredness than I ever felt at any other graveside I have ever experienced.
This site; this grave; was indeed the final resting place for Jackie Levine’s body.
Just as I was about to leave the I bent down and touched the ground. Jackie’s body was now a part of the earth.
I then saw John Givre and I thought: Jackie’s soul, her spirit, her being is still with him and she shall be with him for the rest of his life. And he’ll get to kiss her again when he gets to heaven.
Frank’s books are available on smile.Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, kindle, e-books and at book stores.