The first funeral at which I officiated by myself took place at graveside on the afternoon before Kol Nidre.
I remember it vividly. My feet were planted uneasily on the distinctive grass typical of cemeteries, a spongy carpet of thatch. Before me was a plain wooden casket suspended over a hole in the ground. The raw earth looked like a wound; it disappeared into darkness below. The Las Vegas sun beat down on our heads and a hot wind ruffled the pages of my rabbi’s manual.
The dead woman’s name was Ruth. The eerie quality to saying my own name at graveside was magnified by the fact that I did not know this Ruth at all, nor did I know her family. I was simply performing a mitzvah. I was the newest rabbi in town, and it was my turn in the rotation to provide funerals for unaffiliated Jews. I had assembled a hesped [eulogy] from the recollections of her relatives, but they were taciturn people and I had not yet developed much skill for drawing stories out of strangers. Skills or no, the hesped had the proper effect: the meyt [dead person) was remembered with dignity and the mourners began their process of grieving with tears.
Fortunately they did not know that the rabbi was well and properly freaked out.
I hardly remember the Kol Nidre service that night. My place in it as the new part-time assistant was small, and I was free to pray as long as I remembered to sit like a lady and keep a calm face on the bimah (front of the sanctuary.) So I sat like a lady, processing the afternoon’s revelation: that someday some other rabbi would stand by a hole in the ground and say those words before they lowered my body into it. Someday I would die and they would bury me. It was unpleasant, but as I worked through it, I realized it was a gift. That visceral knowledge of my own mortality taught me that I have no time to waste on this earth.
The Psalmist wrote that our “days are like grass.” Most of the time we are able to avoid that knowledge. Thinking about it too much isn’t healthy. Thinking about it too little is just as bad.
Someday I will die. What must I get done before that day comes?