The first thing that happened the morning after my brother Eric killed himself was my sister and I told our father. It was early in the morning, so we let ourselves into the house where our father had been living alone since our mother died five years earlier. He sat on the edge of the bed, confused and half asleep. He said, “That stupid idiot.”
The next thing that happened was my other sister arrived, and then Eric’s wife. We stood outside with my father and talked about what to do next. We walked in small circles around each other like pigeons, moving from one to the other hoping someone would take control. And then my brother’s wife, now a widow, said that Eric had wanted to be cremated. This was all we needed to know. This gave us a direction of where to go next. We gave over to her request, assuming not only that she would be the one who would know what Eric wanted, but that as his wife she should be the one to decide. And we were, for a moment, glad. None of us knew what else to do. I looked at my father and felt relieved that he would be free of the obligation of deciding how to bury his own son.
While we were all in shock, none of us were really surprised that Eric took his own life. Even as a young man he was obsessed with the idea, once even getting literature from the Hemlock Society. It was as if he kept suicide in his back pocket like a pamphlet as a possible way out. It wasn’t until the last years of his life that I knew how sick he had become, how hopelessness and regret had colored everything for him. That he wanted to be cremated seemed a part of this desire to take himself out of the world completely.
After the memorial service, performed by a Reform rabbi, we had nothing left to do. There would be no gathering at a cemetery, no discussion of what his headstone should say. My mother was buried in a Jewish cemetery, one in which ashes are not allowed. His remains couldn’t be buried near her.
Jewish law itself is not always clear on why cremation is prohibited. Deuteronomy states that even a criminal should not be left to hang from a tree for the carrion feeders, but should be buried right away. The rabbinical tradition invokes respect for the body, for the entire world; to burn the body is an act of violence against God’s creation. For his part, Maimonides wrote in his 13 principles of faith that “the dead will be brought back to life.” Since ashes do not a body make, those who have been cremated cannot be resurrected when God decides to raise up the dead. Given the association between cremation and Nazi death camps, many Jews cannot fathom why a Jew would ever choose such an option. And while more liberal schools of Jewish thought will allow the burial of “cremains,” there is still unease that winds its way through much of the commentary on the subject.
Sometime after the memorial service, Eric’s wife scattered his ashes on a beach 25 miles from our home in Cambridge, Mass. Just as he had wanted, there is nothing left.
But now there is nothing left to mourn, either.
Is this then, the reason for the Jewish prohibition against cremation? That without the body shrouded and placed in a simple wooden box, without a headstone or burial mound, we are without the tactile sensation that so much of Jewish ritual insists on? Observant Jews bind their head and arms with phylacteries, and on holy days even Reform Jews can be seen touching their prayer books to the Torah as it makes its rounds through the congregation. We thump our chests on Yom Kippur and shake our lulavs on Sukkot. We salt our water on Passover, and extinguish our Havdalah candles with a satisfying pshhhh at the end of the Sabbath. When we mourn, we rend our garments, sit on low stools, and clutch the dirt with our hands to throw on the casket before it is lowered into the ground.
The one thing I knew I would miss most of all, is the placing of a pebble or rock on the headstone as a reminder … to who? To God, to ourselves, to the universe that we were there and that we remember. What was there now for me, for any of my family, to do with our trembling, impatient hands?
A few days after Eric’s service we went to his house and his wife distributed items that she thought each of us would want. I took some toy cars my brother collected and a nonstick frying pan, things we use all the time now without a thought. I can remember Eric by these things, but they will never be a memorial to him. They are the detritus of a life, more stuff to add to the pile of my own.
Suicide is a crushing blow to those who survive. I am still angry at my brother, despite my understanding that he was sick. I am angrier still at myself that I did not ask to keep a part of him, if even a few grains of his ashes. My brother’s death took him from me, but now it’s as if he never existed. There is nothing left.
Then, earlier this fall, I had an idea to go to a beach on the north shore of Boston where his ashes were scattered. I wanted to collect some of the sand, place it in a jar, and set it on a shelf in my house. It’s possible there is some of him still there in that sand, if only in a single grain. It might be enough to remind me that he once was really here.
My father picked me up from the train station and together we drove out to what is called a shingle beach, mostly rock with little sand. This was my brother’s favorite place, Winter Island, where a barrack that was used for aircrafts during World War II still stands. I had hurt my leg the day before, and my father is arthritic, so together we shuffled and limped down the rocky shore. We stopped at an open area littered with broken clamshells, the remains of the hard work of the gulls that drop the clams from a great height so that they shatter, revealing the moist prize inside. I looked out over the water. My father and I had the same conversation we always have when talking about Eric. How we were shocked at the manner of his death, but not surprised. How despite all his regret and depression, that there was so much good in Eric’s life and why couldn’t he see it? But we talked as if on autopilot, as if we were obliged to say something when in fact there was nothing at all to say.
So I bent down and gathered the pebbly sand and imagined that some part of him was here. But then, as I took in the beauty of the beach — the huge gulls, the small abandoned lighthouse, the calm green water — I understood finally that this very place is Eric’s graveyard. The rocks are his headstone, the marks of the shells on the sand the engraving on the marble that read that he was born and he died. Eric was buried here.
I still took some of the sand home to keep, along with a handful of shells I gave to my son. But soon, I will take him to this beach, and we will toss handfuls of pebbles into the ocean. I can even say Kaddish here, because although there is nothing left of Eric that will turn slowly to dust over time, this whole beach is where he remains, as long as there is sand and rock and shell
Peter Bebergal is the co-author of “The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for theMeaning of God” (Bloomsbury, 2007). He lives in Massachusetts and blogs at MysteryTheater. blogspot.com. Reprinted from Tabletmag.com
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.