Reporter’s Notebook: Last burial is communal testament
For one journalist, observing the end gave insight into the whole.
In the quiet cold of a snow-covered cemetery, the final burial after the Tree of Life murders occurred on Nov. 16. Held in the same settings as those of weeks past, the circumstances were altogether different: The uncharacteristic fanfare marking recent communal life was absent; the midday interment was not preceded by the impassioned remarks of international guests or speakers decrying hate; the steady stream of photographers and telecasters camped beside religious venues seeking to capture grieving glances and stances best typifying the tragedy was gone, as were the abundant crowds who in that first week after the massacre filled pews in sanctuaries and spaces beyond hold.
Twenty days after the Oct. 27 attack, the few who attended the two Friday burials were those whose shoveling and smoothing served as the final acts in a weeks-long process of unspoken kindness. After arriving at the first site, the bundled volunteers — standing side by side, representing both of Pittsburgh’s chevra kadisha (Gesher HaChaim Jewish Burial Society, which is Orthodox, and New Community Chevra Kadisha of Greater Pittsburgh, which is non-Orthodox) — silently passed materials from hand to hand. Stretched between a parked vehicle and an open grave, the helpers silently transferred items along the path of palms.
Into the pit went deposited carpets — despite multiple attempts at washing, the extracted pieces were still stained by blood — and cleaning supplies: wipes, sponges, soiled gloves and Tyvek suits, which the volunteers had worn throughout the approximate 35 continuous hours of scrubbing, scraping and removing of matter from the floors, pews, walls and ceilings inside the Tree of Life synagogue building. The need to deposit items in such fashion stems from a centuries-old Jewish tradition that the deceased and (to the best extent possible) any portion of his or her remains must be treated with dignity in death as in life.
Interrupting such silence at the cemetery was the engine ignition and subsequent hum of “The Logan,” a wheeled, green colored, vault handler used to lower a concrete cover above the bedded contents. The volunteers who had stepped aside in making way for the manned machine resumed their position around the rectangular cavity and ladled dirt onto the concrete lid.
The Kel Maleh Rachamim (prayer for the departed) was then said before participants returned to vehicles and headed east to a second cemetery where a similar burial process was performed, though this time without motorized equipment. Instead, shovels were driven into soil — at points a pickax was used when the earth would not give — until a suitable sized hole was made, and again items were dropped deep beneath their eventual snow-topped surface. Once the cavity was covered, another Kel Maleh Rachamim was recited. Those who encircled the small space stood in sight of an oblong headstone bearing the words “In memory of our Jewish brothers and sisters who perished in the Shoah 1933-1945.”
Little talk was offered as to what monument would eventually mark the freshly prepared plot, rather, the volunteers largely stood still, some supporting themselves with shovels. With nothing left to tomb, the chevra kadisha’s work was complete.
Back in Squirrel Hill, inside the Tree of Life building there are prayer spaces missing pews, tiles and other trappings which will need to be addressed, as will certainly those remaining congregants who once frequented the synagogue’s sacred spots. For a community committed to healing, the work will be laborious and perhaps unending, but for those members of Pittsburgh’s two chevra kadisha, who refused to allow denominational divides to disrupt a respectful treatment of the dead, their job finished on Friday, Nov. 16.
Before returning to their cars and heading home, a common comment was expressed. Said one volunteer to another, “Shabbat Shalom.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com