By Harriet P. Gross
The sky was blue, with long, high wisps of white cloud. The air was clear. There was a bit of a breeze. It was the perfect day for many things. A funeral was not one of them. But then, there’s never a perfect day for a funeral, is there?
Still, I knew that even bad weather would not keep people from this simple graveside ceremony. Not like the woman who saw me after the recent death of one of her supposedly dear friends; when she told me, I said I already knew; I had been at the funeral. “You went?” she responded, visibly surprised: “But it was raining!” Today we would be saying a last goodbye to someone who would draw us together, even in the rain.
However, I never anticipated how many people would actually be there.
When I turned into the cemetery’s main drive, I had to park my car behind the longest line of parked cars I’d ever encountered for a service in our synagogue’s section. It was a far walk; I remembered when I’d been to a funeral in the same place before my knee replacement and had trouble navigating only the short distance from the usually unoccupied closer-in parking spots. Bless the good Lord for successful surgeries, I thought, as I trudged onward.
Suddenly, looking ahead, I was facing a sea of darkness. More black-clad mourners than I’d ever seen at a gravesite. They virtually surrounded it, three and six and 10 deep, quietly waiting. It was almost time to bury Susan Blumka.
Why had so many come here to say goodbye? This woman wasn’t famous. She wasn’t a recognized leader in politics or any branch of government, not even in any local organizations. Not even in the synagogue she loved so much. She was, “simply,” a wife, a mother, a teacher. Not so simply, however — because in each of these roles, she was the quintessential mensch. She lived for the happiness of others, which is what made her happy. She smiled, always, even into the face of the cancer that, after almost a decade and a couple of false-hope remissions, finally claimed her.
Adam Raskin was her rabbi and her friend. He eulogized her from the heart, recalling that as he prepared to leave after a last, heartbreaking visit to her hospital bedside, she reached up, squeezed his hand, looked directly at him and thanked him for coming — “as if she were walking me to the door of her home after a dinner party,” he told the crowd of mourners. The darkness of their garb was like that which once descended over Egypt, described in that very week’s Torah reading. Three days of darkness. Susan had passed away on Friday, erev Shabbat, and was buried on Monday. Three days. And our skies were blue. Had she lightened the heavens?
Susan’s family was there. Her friends were there. Her many students of many years were there. Her husband, with whom she had shared not even 25 too-short years of marriage, sat there with their teenage children. The children’s friends were there, many standing together with arms linked, a long line of solidarity. When Susan was only 6, the same disease had claimed her mother. Susan lived longer, but had not reached 10 times that.
The family did not want to watch the grave being covered, so the mourners formed two long, dark lines that stretched past the parked cars, holding them, exchanging a few words and more than a few tears as husband and children passed between them. Then we performed our final mitzvah. And I recalled another funeral, years ago, when the day was not clear. A heavy downpour threatened to collapse the tent over the gravesite of Frieda Bloom, who died in her 90s, after more years than anyone could count of faithful volunteer service to her temple’s Sunday School, fetching and shlepping and rolling untold mounds of tzedakah coins every week. The late Rabbi Gerald Klein motioned for that crowd of mourners to go inside the nearby small chapel, where he said to us: “I’m sure Frieda wouldn’t mind that we’ve come in out of the rain.” And then, after a pause: “But I’m also sure there’s no one here who wouldn’t stand out in the rain for Frieda.”
I’m sure that if the skies had been dark on this more recent day, the mourning crowd would not have been diminished. We would all have stood out in the rain for Susan.
By Harriet P. Gross