Maybe I don’t want to be Cremated

Waldheim Cemetery, Chicago…Grandparents buried there…A plot left for me, should I choose it.

Twenty years ago or so, I was a member of a Rosh Chodesh (new moon) women’s group that Orlene Schimburg led at Beth Tikvah. Most of us were in our sixties. At one meeting, Orlene asked us to share our major regret. She shared her regret that she was not accepted to a particular university and, because of that, her self-confidence never fully returned. Her daughter, Jessica, hugged her.

I don’t remember what I shared at that Rosh Chodesh meeting but I know I would not have shared anything I deeply regretted. I don’t trust groups (with rare exception) to respect my wounds or to keep my words private. But today—so many years later— Orlene’s words and her willingness to be vulnerable reverberate in my soul.

Now, Orlene has died and her daughter, Jessica, is a Reconstructionist Rabbi of the “Little Minyan” congregation that meets in a Unitarian church where Orlene’s memorial service was held.

I dressed in gray, arrived early and entered the familiarity of the sanctuary.  A piano, cello, and flute were playing in a minor key. I teared up immediately. Minor keys touch my soul’s memories. Or something.

The sanctuary was full. Standing Room Only. No one was chatting. No one was texting. 

A visiting rabbi welcomed us to “Orlene’s sacred space.”

A white wooden coffin with a carved Star of David atop it was in the center aisle.

Jessica sang the Hebrew songs she had sung at her mother’s bedside. Orlene’s son told a story of how a street artist had drawn a picture of Orlene although he had never seen her. Orlene’s sister led the congregants in reciting Orlene’s favorite prayer, Sim Shalom, give us peace.  Orlene’s granddaughter Rachel read a poem she had written, Grandma Loves Yellow. Rachel doesn’t know why her grandma loves yellow but thinks it is because yellow is the color of the pie crust when it comes out of Nana’s oven and the color of Nana’s teeth, and because all the yellow flowers are blooming now.

More minor scale music and I cried. Pall bearers rose from their seats, lifted the coffin and carried Orlene down the aisle.  I felt Orlene’s spirit as the coffin passed.  

Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the deceased’s Soul comes to the funeral to see who is there and to say its good-byes. I had been to other funerals but this was the first time I felt the deceased one’s spirit.

Has my acceptance of my own dying made me open to this experience?

The mourners filed out in an orderly manner, quietly and respectfully. Some mourners followed Orlene and the casket to the cemetery. Those of us, like me, who were not going to the cemetery, waited.

There was plenty to think about while I waited. I thought about my body after I die. I was no longer sure that I wanted to be cremated. I thought it would be lovely to be in a white wooden coffin with a Star of David over my heart, and how fun it would be for my spirit to be there, too, to say “hello” and “good-bye”….

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