The Burial Plot
The plane is full and my wife holds my hand. I look from my aisle seat across to the window. Baggage handlers heave and shove in clusters. Their end products go on a conveyor belt. I know somewhere in the underbelly of our DC-10 (or in the hold of another plane) is my grandmother. I glance back. A few rows adjacent to us my dad sits with his wife. Always studious, with an insatiably hungry mind, his eyes fix on the in-flight magazine. I wonder what is going through his head. The flight magazines are always yesterday’s news.
It is the first week of June 2003 and the sun grazes at the tarmac, foreshadowing the summer ahead. Oma (affectionate German for “Grandma”) lived most of her senior years with her only immediate family, her son, my dad, in Minnesota. She first lived in an independent living facility in St. Paul’s Highland Park area. Her independence dwindled and dad eventually moved her to a nursing home. My mom, my wife and I, and dad, all have visited her on separate occasions. His wife visited Oma often and at times comforted her, holding her close in the final days. I remember going to the home in May with my wife. We sensed they were our last visits. Oma seemed to know this too. She looked so frail, and she stared at the ceiling with tenuousness to this world in her eyes. It was as though she saw something she could not share with us. I don’t think anyone can see that look and not be the slightest bit curious about an afterlife.
Oma’s husband, Opa (affectionate German for “Grandpa” passed away suddenly from a heart attack in 1968. At the time they were living in Red Bank, New Jersey. I was three years old and remember best the jolting manner in which we got there. A mid-morning flight took us to Newark and then a small single-prop plane took us to Red Bank. Opa’s sister, Beda, her second husband, Chil, and his daughter Mona also attended the funeral. Mona vomited often, and did so then. I’m told a few of Opa’s business associates attended. Peddlers he’d traversed southern South Jersey with showed up to pay their respects. I never knew Opa, although, I do know he was likely the first Amram to be buried at New Jersey’s Beth Israel Cemetery.
We met my sister, her husband, and their two daughters in New Jersey. They’d driven down from Massachusetts. The occasion became a kind of reunion. It was a time to consider Oma while also bonding three generations. The eight of us checked in to a hotel near Woodbridge, New Jersey. The funeral was Thursday. We left the hotel a few times during the week, but mostly we bonded, shared memories, and ordered food to our room.
A slight chill wandered the air as we walked to the burial plot. A rabbi welcomed us all, offered his sympathies, and hugged us like he knew us. A gentle wind teased at his rekel (a long black coat, typically worn by Hasidic men), causing it to brush at his neck. He did his job with the superficiality to which emotion often concedes. His eyes crinkled and he davened (prayed rhythmically). He rocked in his wooden grave site chair as he chanted the Kaddish prayer. He was an anonymous rabbi, but he worked his way into our minds to do his job. I guess that is a skill reserved for people who frequent God’s auspices.
He davened madly, attacking the remaining strains of the Kaddish like a repentant vulture. A wooden casket waited on a wheeled device alongside a wide rectangular hole. Chanting resounded from it vacantly, and the wheeled cart brought the deceased closer to the hole. It was surreal, the kinetic powers that rabbi had. I watched closely and soon groundskeepers appeared. It was as though they had been hiding behind other graves. The belts holding the casket on the wheeled device were released. The keepers slowly guided Oma into the ground. Their timing was right. The Yiskor (memorial prayer) was completed just as the last corner of the casket touched the earth. The rabbi nodded and we each took turns throwing shovelfuls of dirt into the hole.
According to the Gregorian calendar, Oma died June 1, 2003. This translates to the Hebrew month of Sivan, also on the first day, in the year 5763. Rabbinic wisdom dictates that Shiva (a seven-day mourning period) be ended early in the event it falls during one of the following Jewish holidays; Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, or Rosh Hashanah. The reasoning is that these days are a time of joy. We entered the gates of Beth Israel Cemetery on the fifth day of Sivan. Shavuot began the next day. By sundown that day Shiva was exempt. Dad is not orthodox or spiritual. He practices a quite liberal Reform Judaism. He wore the tallis (prayer shawl) and played the part in his youth. A loophole was provided by Jewish law. Dad did not feel remiss at all about not sitting Shiva for his mother.
Oma, Opa, and their son, Manfred’s (my dad) ship arrived in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty November 15, 1939. Oma had arranged for their departure from Germany. She obtained a sponsor, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and in late October of 1939 they left. They came to America, via Holland and Belgium, from Hannover, Germany. Upon entering America, Meinhardt (Opa) became Milton and Manfred became Fred. Sitta—for reasons that had much to do with what she’d escaped—remained Sitta.
Freddy (dad) enrolled at Syracuse University in upstate New York in 1951. Opa had been working for many years as a peddler, procuring anything that a housewife could need. He commuted from their 74th Street apartment in Manhattan to his route in towns in South New Jersey such as Freehold and Long Branch. Dad’s parents left New York in 1958 and settled in Red Bank, New Jersey. Else Nussbaum (née Muller), Sitta’s mother, resided in a nursing facility in the New York borough of Queens.
Dad grew up in an Orthodox Jewish house. He went to Hebrew school to become a bar mitzvah in 1946. His maternal grandmother, Omi (Else), lived with Oma, Opa, and him in their Manhattan apartment. Omi kept kosher with great piousness. When she visited us in Minnesota, my mom had two sets of dishes for her. One set was for her beef and the other for dairy. Oma lacked the conviction of her mother, and if the precise adherence to a Jewish dietary law was in question, mom said Oma waved her hand, indicating “close enough.”
Else Nussbaum stood 4 feet 11 inches. “Omi" is another affectionate German word for grandma. It could be diminutive, denoting size, and, in this case, was quite fitting. The name also served to differentiate her from Freddy’s paternal grandmother, Jettchen, whom he called Oma. Sitta and her mother moved to Miami, Florida, in 1970. Omi was frume (Jewishly observant), and a kosher nursing home was imperative. The one that was found was located in South Miami. Oma had already settled in an apartment in North Miami.
Oma was very proper and living in the “proper” part of Miami was never questioned. Her home was kept immaculate. Everything had its place. Pillows were never overstuffed (like Freddy loved at Aunt Beda’s apartment). Oma left nothing to chance. Shoes were not allowed across the threshold. Spotless from the door onward, was maroon, mauve, and brown carpeting. It proceeded flush to the walls and was as soft as velvet. Area rugs were islands where floor was unprotected. I’m guessing the only time the carpet needed to be vacuumed was after we visited.
Sitta had a subtle elitist streak. She thought Polish Jews were beneath her in status. Beda’s second husband, Chil, was such a Jew. It was largely for this reason that she disparaged Beda. Growing up, Freddy was neither encouraged nor discouraged from spending time with his only aunt. I was twelve when she died, and I saw her once; twice, if you count seeing her grave in Beth Israel.
Oma visited Omi routinely. She rode the bus to South Beach and kvetched )complained) about it. Those last years of Omi’s life their relationship was co-dependent. I saw Omi in about 1977. The nursing home smelled of urine and anti-septic sprays. She was frail and her smile was apprehensive and toothy. Her hair was wild and brittle. I felt her loathing, even if she didn’t. She was sitting in conditions that vaguely mimicked those she may have experienced in Germany much earlier in her life. She gripped her wheelchair tightly, precariously covered by an orange and brown Afghan. Omi passed away in the nursing home October 1, 1980. She was ninety-four. Her body remained in Florida and was buried in the city of Doral at Lakeside Memorial Park.
Oma had tried to negotiate the sale of Omi’s plot at Beth Israel long before Omi’s death. The plot in the cemetery was one site over from her own and Opa’s. It did not sell. The plot was worth only a few hundred dollars, but Oma insisted on getting the money. he plot was listed for sale for years, and no one bought it. In the late 1990s, dad and his wife went to New Jersey to deal with the people at Beth Israel. The cemetery staff was rude and difficult so a decision was made to donate the plot. It went to people who could not afford to be buried in Beth Israel. Oma never knew the plot was given away. Ironically, it was donated for use by exactly the type of people on whom she would likely look down upon.
Jewish law dictates the deceased never be unattended before burial. A shomer (guardian) is assigned to the body. Physiological laws make it impossible for a human to ride in an unpressurized belly of an airplane. Omi would have had to be driven to Woodbridge from Miami (1,256 mile) to observe the Jewish law and still end her life as piously as she had lived it. It is doubtful this law was ever considered, however. Still, a truly spiritual person might say the decision on where Omi would rest was influenced divinely. She would remain in Miami, never be unattended, and leave this world with an unblemished record of piousness. More likely Omi was buried in Florida because she had no plot in Woodbridge. Also, Oma did not want to pay to transport a body.
A rabbi once told me funerals are for the living. The dead and their spirits supersede logistics. Oma passed away in the St. Paul nursing home where she’d lived the last years of her life. The funeral home she was taken to observed Orthodox Jewish custom. Regardless of the living’s religious sentiments, the customs were carried out in full. They were included in the price and Oma’s body was attended by someone from the time she entered the funeral home to the time she was put on the plane. The decision to transport her to New Jersey was morally motivated. The living would have to live with their decision. Oma claimed she did not want anyone to bear the expense of transporting her. There was no directive stating this. Even if there were, sometimes moral obligations supersede anything written with a lucid mind in a law office. Dad guessed it was Oma’s secret wish to be buried in New Jersey next to Opa. He wanted it for his mother.
My sister—an educator at a temple in Massachusetts—officiated at the unveiling. This is the ritual of presenting the matzevah (tombstone) at a second ceremony, up to a year after the burial. It is not in the halakaha (Jewish law) but came to be a tradition by Jews in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It can be done within the year following the funeral, but no less than six months. It had been roughly nine months since Oma’s funeral. Woodbridge’s ground was allowed to settle. The eight of us gathered once more at Beth Israel April 18, 2004. Customary prayers were read. A Kaddish was said, preceding words of my sister’s own devise. We were all given a few moments to share memories of Oma. Pebbles were tossed on the headstone embedded in the ground. Strands of dead grass whisped over the name, assuring us of their green rebirth as the season changed.
Oma and Opa were together again. I saw it, I believed it—their headstones lay side by side. They were together in dad’s mind. They’d forever be together in that cemetery. Dad insists he’s not spiritual. Although, if there is ever any doubt in his mind whether his mother wanted to be buried in New Jersey, he can rest easy—and she can as well. Oma had purchased that plot for herself. Obviously she fully intended Beth Israel Cemetery to be her final resting place. Dad fulfilled Oma’s wish and gave himself a peace of mind.
Jews observe a yahrtzeit, a memorial in which a candle is burned, tzedakah (charity) is given, and prayers are read. Tradition dictates yahrtzeits be observed on the Hebrew date of passing. Such annual remembrances are done for Milton (30th day of Av), Sitta (1st day of Sivan), and Else (21st day of Tishrei). Traditional Jews, if spiritual, know and appreciate Olam Ha-Ba as an afterlife or a world to come. In Judaism the focus is the here and now. Jews are not always living for the future. Any belief system regarding an afterlife is not binding and ample room is given for personal opinion. Orthodox Jews may believe that the souls of the truly pious ascend to a place similar to the Christian heaven. Perhaps it’s a parallel universe. They also may give reverence to the theory that the departed are reincarnated through many lifetimes. There is the belief that the messiah will come and the dead will be resurrected. In this case, if the deceased believed in an afterlife, and if at least one of the people observing the yahtzeit believes in one, it is a safe bet Oma, Opa, Omi, Beda, even Chil, are all together.
Designed by Sandra Brick/Textured Elements – Prose by Michael Paul Amram - ©2014