The first time in my life that I set eyes on a dead human being was a month ago in Toronto. Raymond’s wife had told me he was in the hospital and I decided to fly there to see him. The last words I heard from him were said in his usual cheerful manner “Hello Leon”. That and watching old movies on TV and lovingly holding the hands of his daughters used up all the energy he had left, and he was gone.
I had often thought about what it would be like to witness a dead body, now I knew, it was nothing, like witnessing a dead tree stump. One minute he was warm, pliable, and cuddly the next, like a log of wood, to be put in the ground or burnt to ashes, being less than useless, rotting and polluting things around him.
Being in a rush to fly back to Israel before the country closed down because of the Omikron variant of Covid 19, I didn’t stay for the funeral.
My brother-in-law had offered me a ride to the airport. We had time for a bite and he called his daughter and her husband to join us at the restaurant in the Sheraton hotel. I had oysters for my first course and entrecote steak for the main course. I hadn’t seen Sarah and Sean for a few years and was happy to have the pleasure of their company at lunch. I put my sadness behind me and we had a jolly lunch. One of the waiters took a picture of me with my arm around Sarah.
After landing my phone began to ring. It was cousin Meish. “What? You didn’t stay for the funeral?” Then it hit me like a bolt of an electric shock; in Jewish law, the most important task of a person was to accompany the dead to their last resting place, as if that gave the dead person pleasure.
Guiltily I replied, “No, I wanted to get home as soon as possible. I had managed to say farewell before he departed. Staying for the funeral would have meant spending another two days in Toronto, which entailed changing the date of my ticket and taking another Covid test. I also didn’t want to burden my niece with having to put me up for another two nights. Though, I confess that the apartment in the basement of her house was almost as comfortable as my own home in Jerusalem”. Nothing can compare with being in one’s own home.
There was a long silence. Meish was thinking. Finally came the judgment; “you should have stayed, you are second in the line of mourners after his son”.
“Good God,” I thought what have I done? “I allowed Raymond to go to his grave unaccompanied by his brother, me, number two in importance in the line of mourners”.
The only solution to the problem I’d created was to go to heaven and apologize and explain about Covid and all that.
This is easier said than done, then I remembered, once, thinking about death, as everybody does now and again. I tried to feel what it was like to die and go to heaven. I lay on my bed, closed my eyes, and held my breath. In that state, I could imagine what it was like.
This memory brought me to the conclusion that indeed cousin Meish is right, attending a funeral is important and the closer a person is to the departed the more important it is to attend the funeral. People standing around a gravesite. declaring praises for the departed, that he would have gladly died to hear in his lifetime, can be a kind of heaven, giving the dead person the feeling that this is the longed-for place known as heaven.
I could only appreciate this important aspect of death by making as if I was dead, and imagining the situation. It was very attractive.
In my imagination, I took in the faces of the people standing around my “corpse”. Counting them in order of importance.
First in line, in my imagination, was my mother. Her tears were an absolute delight. She wrung her hands together moaning “why did I punish him for not doing his homework?” “he was a good boy”. She didn’t even mention the times I’d messed up her kitchen while trying to make ice cream. “She loves me, I thought with pleasure and she misses me”. This truly was what heaven must be like. Satisfied, I dismissed her and went on to the old man, officially first in importance but because of some minor infringements against my ego, I demoted him to second place.
He put on a brave face and announced the great things I could have achieved had I stayed alive; a scholar, an advisor to the leaders of the land, a writer, a famous political scientist who would have solved the conflicts between nations.
Then came Raymond, crying bitterly, “my dear brother I loved you so much I’ll let you play with my model airplanes and take pictures with my Rolleiflex camera, if only you’ll come back to us”
Finally, Bernard looked down, apologizing for scattering my precious stamp album.
I desperately wanted these complements and I was happy to die for them, hearing them, even in my imagination was heaven.
I wasn’t at his funeral, as I liked to imagine him being at mine, to declare to all present what a wonderful man and brother he was. He would have gladly died, I realized, to hear me say those words of praise. What were the difficulties involved in the adjustments needed to lengthen my stay to be at his funeral, compared to the heaven I could have given him as the second of the chief mourners?
I think they should bury him again so that I can be there and make his heaven brighter by my presence.