Letter to My Cremated Father
I hope this open letter does you honor. Let no one imagine for a moment that you meant anything less to me than the earthly manifestation of divine love.
Dear Tata, the cremation of your body has singed my soul.
And so I am compelled to seek some relief from the burn in the composition of a letter to you aimed across the great divide between the World of Mendacity in which I am still residing and the World of Truth in which you are now a blessed new citizen.
You never liked phonies and poseurs. I don’t doubt that, now, seeing me as you do from the World of Truth, the artificial nature of this letter is entirely obvious. My complex motives, noble and ignoble, are transparent to you, more so than they are to me. Let’s be honest about at least one motive. I have an agenda. Since your passing, I have corresponded with three fellow Jews asking me for advice. Their parents have informed them of their plans to have their bodies cremated upon death. I advised them to share their anxieties with their parents before it’s too late. My hope is that this letter, an artifice to ease my double grief over your death and cremation, will reach other Jews in the same plight, children and parents.
You specified in your will that, upon your demise, your dead body is to be completely burned.
I suppose this letter is my ersatz shiva. May it be the catalyst of real shivas that will otherwise have been unrealized.
Let me begin by sympathizing, as best I can, with your decision. You specified in your will that, upon your demise, your dead body is to be completely burned, that a gentile funeral home is to expedite the incineration, and that the resulting ashes should be disposed of in any way the executor of the will deems fitting.
In a way, I admire your bold decision. I am your son, after all. I know how you felt about Jewish traditions, how little stock you put by them. You were a thinking man. It’s from you that I learned to think myself. You taught me how to see the beauty in a Euclidean proof in geometry. You explained to me how a car motor works. You taught me to trust in my intellect. To take the deepest pleasure in the feeling of wonder. Later, on my way toward attaining a PhD in philosophy, I would learn how Aristotle said that all thinking originates in a sense of wonder. You never read Aristotle yourself. But you understood him instinctively.
(Perhaps you’re attending Aristotle’s lectures now? But no, I don’t believe it. I believe your infinite thirst for knowledge has drawn you willy-nilly into the great hall in which the soul of Rabbi Akiva imparts the greatest secrets of the Torah.)
You loved Reason. And in your passion for the rational, you found it necessary to dismiss the Torah. I understand. I myself, your reason-loving son, had to undergo the most grueling mental exercises, and the most purgatorial gestures of self-introspection, in order to come to terms with the non-rational truths of the Torah. It was only after reaching the outermost limits of rational thinking – with the help of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Thomas Kuhn, Jacques Derrida – that I discovered the very real possibility, indeed the very reality, of the non-rational. I don’t blame you. Nor am I patronizing you. (“Patronize”: from pater, father. Can a Jewish son ever really patronize his father? Your mind begat mine.) I am arguing with you. It was you who taught me to argue with you. You would be so proud of me when I was able to disagree with you. You’d frown and shake your head and smile a big secret smile.
You loved Reason, yes, and in your love for Reason, you concluded that the Torah is nothing but a product of human imagination. That there is nothing like life after death. That the soul is nothing but a wondrous symphony of electrical impulses played in the grey concert hall of the brain. That once the concert ended and all these impulses become quiet, nothing remains but a useless lump of organic material to be disposed of like an old automobile beyond repair.
I truly admire the fierceness of your conclusion. I admire your intolerance for magical thinking, for voodoo. I admire the extraordinary existentialist’s courage with which you faced the profound meaninglessness of reality – which is to say, a reality that you felt to be ultimately meaningless. You waved your fist against fate in the manner of a Greek tragic hero. (Is that why you died so close to Hanukkah – Kislev 21? Is Rabbi Akiva presently explaining how the Maccabee victory was a victory over the Tyranny of Reason and the Hellenistic Empire of Tragic Heroism?)
If I could have entered into a philosophical discussion with you about such questions, I would have. But you were not impressed by philosophical ideas. You left those to me.
And now I see a different route I might have taken, a route to a different conversation, a route I never saw before. I see it so clearly now because of my pain. My pain makes me lucid. So let me say what I should have said. Let others hear it on behalf of your memory….
I wish I could have recited Kaddish by your grave.
I wish I could have buried your body. I wish I could have strewn earth upon your shroud. I wish I could have recited Kaddish by your grave. I wish I could have invoked the Great Name, the Shmei Rabba, over your body’s quiet enfoldment in the earth and its return to its element.
Instead of earth, you chose fire. Fire too is a primordial element, yes. But fire mocks. When our people were condemned to a Final Solution during your childhood which you spent in Siberia, those who murdered them did so with a double mockery. They poisoned them with gas like an exterminator killing insects. And they incinerated their remains in fire like a garbage man burning waste.
I feel – I don’t know, but I feel – that you opted for cremation in some kind of unfathomable solidarity with those of us whose bodies were cremated in Auschwitz. I heard of a survivor who had intended to make such a posthumous gesture. I think it was an unconscious solidarity in your case. The heroic gesture, again, of a tragic hero. In light of your decision, I can’t help but feel that the crematoria of Auschwitz are still with us. Exile is something the Jew suffers deep, deep within. You accepted the Exile. You made room for Auschwitz. I wish you could have heard and believed the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe: Exile is unacceptable! Auschwitz has no more place in this world, not even as little place as the tip of a single match head!
And I should have said something else. I should have told you about my need to mourn for you in the company of others. My need, yes, admittedly only mine, not yours, Tata. But you loved me so much, surely you would have acquiesced to my need, the need of your son whom you loved with a boundless love, even if you would have disagreed with the validity of this need…. My need to sit shiva for you – to sit and mourn in the company of family and friends, to talk about you, to share memories of you.
As you know, dear Tata, I cry when I am alone. I weep like a boy. (You remember the sound?) I think about you. I look through old photos of you. I even talk to you. And I weep. I mourn. Nothing can take away my private mourning. But it is just that – private. Why should I want to mourn publicly as well? Is private mourning not enough? Indeed, isn’t private mourning more genuine than public mourning?
Yes, that’s just it. Public mourning all too easily becomes a spectacle, a maudlin charade. We who still reside in the World of Mendacity will sometimes take advantage of any occasion to get a little more attention, narcissistically, even a funeral or a memorial service. And yet, at the same time, we are social creatures, who naturally take comfort in the presence of family, friends and community.
And that’s just it. The old and venerable Jewish tradition of a public comforting of mourners, the tradition of sitting shiva, is what gives legitimacy to public mourning. For a Jew, any other way of mourning publicly must indeed be a farce. A shiva house alone, for a Jew, constitutes an authentic way to mourn in company, authentic because so very old, so utterly unoriginal.
Shiva is the final hammer blow that snaps shut the iron link in the chain of a family history.
The fact that I wish you had decided otherwise in no way diminishes my adoration for you or how dearly I will cherish your memory.
You know very well, dear Tata, that I bear no resentment toward you. You know I adored you. The fact that I wish you had decided otherwise in no way diminishes my adoration for you or how dearly I will cherish your memory. It was your unbounded paternal love for me that made me so Jewish. Your love for me was fashioned in the image of God’s love for His children. It was your own very Jewish upbringing that engendered this paternal love in you. What choice did I have but to take this infinite love to God Himself?
I hope I always honored you properly in life. And I hope this open letter does you honor. Let no one imagine for a moment that you meant anything less to me than the earthly manifestation of divine love.
My prayer now is that our common Divine Father is taking you in His infinite paternal bosom, and that, from your heavenly perspective and station, you will move angelic forces to influence Jews contemplating cremation to think things through a notch more carefully. Intercede for us.
I miss your arms around me, Tata. Hug me now.
This article originally appeared on Chabad.org and is copyrighted by the author and/or Chabad.org.
See also: Saying No to Cremation.