It was, I see from a primary source (the eulogy) May 5, 2005, when my father’s body, in the plain pine box he’d instructed me to get for him when he died, arrived for burial at the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill cemetery. It was a sunny day, blue cloudless sky, a perfect Spring day, completely comfortable for the dark blue suit, shirt and tie I was wearing.
An oily character from the funeral home came up to my mother and me as the hearse pulled up. He wanted to know if we brought the money. He was wearing a sharp black suit, which on him made him look like a ghoul. He counted the hundred dollar bills my mother handed him, to make sure there were eighty of them.
This handing over cash at the cemetery before the funeral struck me as one of the crassest things I’d ever seen, but the merciless pricks at Hellman Funeral Chapel had insisted on it. No funeral without the corpse, no corpse without the cash. We have the corpse, do you have the cash? No checks, please, you understand.
The ghoul made a bit of small talk as my mother fished for the fat envelope of cash in her purse. He asked what I did for a living. His face lit up with a creepy smile when I told him I was a lawyer, which I still was back then. “I used to be a lawyer,” he said, beginning to count the $8,000, “but I like this much better.”
I’m sure you do, I thought, hiding my revulsion behind a smile almost as sincere as his. When he was satisfied with the money count he asked me if I was going to identify the body. I hadn’t realized I’d be doing this, but I walked with him over to the hearse. A working man opened the coffin and I looked inside. It was my father, all right.
He had died as Shabbat, the day of rest, began on Friday evening, April 29th. Jewish tradition is to hold the funeral as soon as possible after death, ideally within a day. Since my father died in Florida, and his entire family had congregated in that hospital on State Road Seven, and his grave was in Westchester, New York, there’d been a logistical delay before we could get everyone to the cemetery. Meantime, his body was prepared for burial and watched over for several additional days by the Chevrai Kadisha, the burial society, which probably added a grand or two to the sum my former colleague had counted.
I don’t know who’d made the decision, perhaps my uncle, but my father, sprouting the five-day white beard I’d heard old men grow after they die, had a shard of broken pottery over his lips and one over each eye. I assumed this was some Orthodox Jewish tradition. The winding sheet he was wrapped in, another religious tradition. “It’s him,” I told the ghoul and the cover was placed back on the coffin.
Standing by the open grave at the top of the hill in the small cemetery, I heard the words I’d written for the eulogist being read by an excellent reader, an actor with a great voice who also chanted beautifully. As well as he read, I was impressed most by his pauses. He had inserted brief pauses, each one in the perfect place to set off exactly what I’d written.
My niece, I noticed, was standing by herself, crying. I nudged Sekhnet, who went over to the girl and put her arm around her. They both cried, as birds sang, and cars crunched past on Oregon Road, not far from where we were standing.