Two Jews recently died within a few days of each other. I don’t know anything about how they lived their lives, or the manner in which they died. But what happened to them after they left this world made a major impact on me.
One individual was a divorced, middle-aged man, originally from the Soviet Union. He left behind his parents and one son. A struggle ensued after his death. Although they’re not religious, his parents envisioned a traditional Jewish burial for their child. Yet the deceased’s son, who had legal authority, wouldn’t hear of it. He was planning to cremate his father and ship the ashes back to the old country.
The parents were distraught. They contacted their rabbi, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade the son to change his mind or come to some sort of compromise. Their spiritual leader, in turn, enlisted the help of other rabbis. Their efforts were also futile. Finally, I was asked, as a representative of the Toronto Beis Din, to contact the non-Jewish funeral home and find out when the funeral took place, so the parents could at least begin sitting shivah. I tried to sound as charming and official as possible, but couldn’t get any information out of the funeral director. She was obliged to maintain confidentiality about every detail relating to the deceased.
This story does not have what I would describe as a happy ending. Yet, it has a positive side: everything the rabbis did was with no other motive than to assist the anguished parents and offer dignity to the deceased. They even raised $15,000 and offered it to the son to arrange a Jewish burial anywhere in the world.
Around the same time, an Orthodox man named Irwin received a call from an acquaintance (we’ll call him Greg), asking how he could arrange a Jewish funeral for his elderly mother who had just died. Irwin was taken aback. He never suspected Greg was Jewish. But, as he learned, Greg was raised as a Catholic, his father’s religion, and had discovered that his mother was Jewish only a few years ago. Though she never requested it, Greg wanted his mother to be buried in accordance with her tradition.
Irwin referred Greg to a Jewish funeral home and arrangements were made for a graveside service that same day. He then asked Irwin if he could arrange a minyan, which is not an easy task to pull together on short notice for a Friday afternoon in the winter. Irwin sent emails around the community and hoped for the best. He showed up at the cemetery and was shocked to find over 20 men who had come for no other reason than to show respect for a deceased stranger. Greg was so grateful that he showed up in shul on Sunday, put on a tallit and tefillin, and said Kaddish.
The Jewish world is currently undergoing a crisis. We are losing people at an alarming rate due to assimilation. However, as long as there are individuals like those in Irwin’s minyan and the rabbis from the first story, who care about the welfare of other Jews both during life and after death, we will continue to be an eternal nation.