Pay Dirt

“I got a weird notice from our Jewish funeral home,” began the daughter of a hospice patient who I will call Donna. I was on the phone with her because she had asked for a rabbi on our hospice staff. “They have those dinners, you know, where they try to get you to prepay?” I thought to myself, no, I didn’t know they did that! She continued, “And what confused me is the paper they gave me that said ‘burials or cremations.’ How could a Jewish funeral home be offering cremations? Anyway, that’s what I want. But I don’t know what to do.”

 I responded, “You mean because that’s against Jewish law?” (After the phone call, I checked, and yes, some Jewish funeral homes offer cremation, with at least some requiring procedures such as burial of the ashes.)

 “Yes,” said Donna. “My mom taught Hebrew school, tutored students for their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, was very active. But I want something in my house to look at and remember her after she’s gone. I want to put her ashes in an urn and have it where I can see it.”

 So here she was, conflicted about following Jewish law and following her needs as a mourner. When I face a dilemma like that, I try to be creative. “I wonder,” I suggested, “if there is some other thing you could display on the mantelpiece that would be distinctive and remind you of your mom? That way you could still have a traditional burial. What about something she made, like an embroidery, or something she wrote or painted, or something she owned. Maybe clothing?” Donna said no to each one. She definitely did not want the obvious one of photos, because “that would be the same as what I had before Mom died.” I was running out of suggestions. Now what? I kept on thinking, and I had to think fast, because Donna was in distress and I did not want to leave her empty handed. Also, “dead time” (pardon the pun?) on a phone is almost as bad as on the radio.

 ..Ahh, now I got it. I reflected on how some mourners bring or order some soil from Jerusalem to place into the grave during a funeral, which led me to a related concept: “Donna, what do you think of taking some of the dirt they dig up to prepare your mother’s grave, putting it in an appropriate container like a jar of some kind, and taking that to put in your home?” Donna warmed up to the idea, especially when I added for good measure that she could get some dirt from Jerusalem and add some of it to the grave, and some to the sample that she would be taking home. Success! No conflict between remembering and feeling closer to a deceased loved one and between being an observant Jew. No tug-of-war for her between “Honoring thy mother and father” and honoring Judaism as her mother had done. We had hit pay dirt.


This  June 2nd, 2019 article of mine reprinted with permission from

6 thoughts on “Pay Dirt

  1. Consuelo Beck-Sague says:

    Man, rabbi. You are GOOD! I’m bringing some dirt from Miami to California, that’s it. I cannot visit my parents’ grave in Miami as much as I used to because it’s a tough commute from California. But this is JUST RIGHT. Thanks again for your wise words.


  2. Looks like you and I are starting a new grieving ritual, especially helpful for when the grave is distant from the mourner. Thanks for your wise comment!


  3. Dan says:

    Very creative! Maybe when I’m next in Israel I’ll bring back some dead sea mud for my mantelpiece to remind me of dead family members. Back in rabbinical school i was fortunate to take a “Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” class with Rabbi Maurice Lamm who literally wrote the book on the subject. He recommended avoiding using the term soil or dirt, but rather use “earth” when working with clients/congregants. Of course, that wouldn’t work as nicely for “Pay Dirt”


    • “Pay Earth” just wouldn’t cut it. Seriously, though, depending on to what extent we wish to avoid euphemisms or other softening devices with a client, “soil” or “dirt” is more direct, and you know, more “earthy” in my opinion!


  4. Dan says:

    He was coming from perspective of “Kavod Hamet” – respecting the deceased. I think he felt that a family is already deeply grieving and if we instruct them at the funeral with “and now we are going to pour dirt on your mother…” this could be taken as insulting to the deceased – and the living.
    I’d add that if the deceased had a traditional “taharah” – ritual cleansing, it could be particularly confounding when a family is told to add dirt to the grave.


    • Yes, of course context and timing is everything. In that instance that you mentioned, probably no words at all would be the best as the dirt is added. Silence can be the best way to bestow dignity and respect for both the dead and the mourners.


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