December 27, 2015
The Most Heartbreaking Day
She was only eight years old. She was healthy. She was happy. She had loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. She was biking with her parents and younger sister by the beautiful boardwalk of Punta del Este. It was the beginning of the summer break. The season hadn’t started in full. There were barely any cars on the road.
And then the unthinkable happened.
Somehow her bike got caught on something. She fell off the bike and tumbled into the street. The driver didn’t see her. Didn’t stop in time. Melanie did not survive the impact.
In my two and a half years on the job, I have buried many people. Young, old, wealthy, poor, sick, healthy. People without a friend to accompany them and people accompanied by hundreds of friends and family. People who died suddenly and people who were in death’s clutches for months and even years.
This was by far the saddest day in my job.
In Uruguay, the Jewish community typically has what’s called a “Velorio”, a time before setting off for the cemetery where people can console the family. For most burials it becomes a semi-social scene. Melanie’s family did not announce a Velorio, but rather informed the public to meet directly at the cemetery. At the place of the Velorio, the immediate family and intimate friends gathered.
However, I was the first one at the site. I had stayed over from another Velorio event. I was there when the small casket was brought in. I was there when close friends came in and broke down in tears. And I was there when Melanie’s parents came in. I cannot recall a more heart-wrenching experience in my life. The parents and grandparents threw themselves over the casket, bawling loudly, screaming, shrieking. One of the grandmothers almost fainted. They cried and cried and cried. Finally the time to leave for the cemetery came. The mother refused to leave the casket. She had to be pried loose from the small wooden box. Finally we started the short procession from the hall to the hearse. I started chanting the traditional Psalm over the wailing of the family. We finally made it to the hearse. I asked the father to say Kaddish. The mother insisted on saying it as well. I read it together with them as we slowly made our way through the text broken by sobs and short breaths. Tears were flowing freely down my face and the face of every person present.
A procession followed the hearse a few meters into the street as I chanted Psalm 91 again, the sobbing and wailing momentarily muted.
We met again at the cemetery. I have never seen so many people at the cemetery. It was a hot, hot Sunday afternoon. It was a bit eerie to see a wall of people in the cemetery lined up perfectly under the shade of the roof.
Rav Mijael was there and as he had a close relationship with the family, he took the lead on the procession. We brought the coffin directly into the crowd under the large roof over the entrance to the cemetery. Rav Mijael wisely opted not to enter into the hall. It would have been a disaster. We needed to do this quickly. The parents did Kria and ripped their garments with such anguish and ferocity that I was reminded forcefully of the wisdom of our traditions. We then went immediately to the burial site. The coffin looked painfully small in the standard sized grave. We started covering the coffin and that’s when the family lost it. If they were wailing and sobbing before, now they were screaming. Primal screams of a such a deep loss, of such a sharp pain that I’m crying again just writing it. Relatives kept pouring water over the parents’ heads as there was a real fear they would pass out. Someone wisely had an ambulance on hand, for the heat and the grief were enough to seriously incapacitate someone.
The mother fell to her knees, grabbed the loose earth and threw it into the grave as it quickly filled up, screaming, almost incoherently, at God. The entire time the parents and grandparents were physically held up (or back) by their loving relatives. They clutched them tightly as in their grief-induced madness they could barely control their own bodies, alternatively fighting to break free or slumping to the ground. When the grave was completely covered, the screaming didn’t end.
Rav Mijael had me chant the next Psalm over the sound of the wailing. Then he got the father to say the Kaddish at the gravesite. I was so choked up, I could barely answer. Rav Mijael then ended with the El Male Rachamim, the prayer for the elevation of the soul. At the request of the family, they asked not to be hugged and kissed afterwards as is typical. They just wanted to go home. The large crowd obliged.
Usually, after a typical burial, non-family members catch up, shmooze. Here it was quiet. Hundreds of people and nobody wanting to talk. Just whispers, just small consolations.
And then people started to come up to me. How can this happen? How can God allow this? How can I believe in God if He can do this?
Still choked up, to some people I simply could not answer, could not find my voice, open my mouth. I shook my head as another tear came loose. When I did find my voice, it was to say that there are no answers. We certainly don’t have the answers and now is certainly not the time to theorize about why or to try to understand God. We just need to stick together, to support the family and be there for them. Some people took the small comfort I offered.
I debated whether I should write such personal details of such a painful burial. But this is a tragedy that has affected the entire community. And so I write this first of all for the community, in our shared grief. And second of all, in sharing our grief to also share in the consolation. We cry together with Melanie’s family. And we are together. Each in our own way. And that is the strength of our community. And it is not to be taken lightly or for granted.
May God console Melanie’s family and our whole community amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.