Deadly serious matters

Deadly serious matters

This column is about cemeteries in New Jersey. I ask your indulgence, however, for some personal comments before I get to the main topic.

My wife, Marilyn Henry, died on March 1, a fact noted in this newspaper both in a lovely obituary and an equally lovely editorial.

I want to thank all who offered us condolences and comfort.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day During Marilyn’s final stages, many people stepped forward to offer help of every kind, for which we both were grateful. There are four people, however, to whom I am indebted above all others. They are four friends who suspended much of their lives in the last eight weeks of Marilyn’s life in order to bring comfort to her and to keep me on an even keel. From the moment it became clear on Feb. 28 that Marilyn was nearing the end of her difficult sojourn, these women were present in Marilyn’s room from early morning until late evening, at times with their husbands joining them.

Marilyn, as some of you may know, was the first patient at Holy Name Hospital’s hospice in Saddle River, Villa Marie Claire – an incredible facility staffed by caring people who take seriously their goal of helping the dying to a good death while bringing comfort to the loved ones left behind. She also was the Villa’s first Jewish patient. The Gang of Four, as I affectionately dubbed our friends, taught the Villa’s staff something about what community means in Judaism.

Judaism takes very seriously the mitzvot of visiting the sick and comforting the dying. A talmudic teaching that we recite each morning as part of our daily prayers asserts that visiting the sick and attending to the needs of the dying and the departed are among those things that earn a person an automatic share in the world to come. If that is true, then these four women earned themselves spacious mansions in the Olam Haba.

It is a sad commentary on modern life, however, that so many synagogues and Jewish communities have bikur cholim committees in name only (mine included) and no chevra kadisha at all. Outside the Orthodox world, it is hard to find people who are committed to preparing a person’s remains for burial or for sitting with those remains until his or her funeral (the work of a chevra kadisha, or “holy society”). Even in the Orthodox world, visiting the sick (bikur cholim) has become more of a mitzvah project for teenagers (worthy as that is) than something that must engage the entire community.

Marilyn and I were blessed – and I remain blessed – because we have such people in our lives as the Gang of Four: Nilene Chase, Ora Kiel, Yvonne Myers, and Nancy Warner.

Too many people, especially the elderly, do not have such a dedicated support system. In the case of the elderly, this is mainly due to attrition; their friends often have either moved to warmer climes or have died.

That is an answer, and a partial one at that, but it is not an excuse. The real problem is that we moderns shy away from death. When it touches our lives, we rush it right out again, as quickly as we can.

It was not always thus. There was standing room only in her room when Marilyn died. Several times during her last few days of life, someone or other in the room remarked on how the scene was reminiscent of paintings from the Middle Ages – paintings that depicted families and friends gathered around the bed of someone who was dying. Often, children were a part of these deathwatch scenes. Today, our aversion to having to deal with death will not allow such scenes.

As a community, we need to give serious consideration to visiting the sick, comforting the dying, and helping the bereaved move on.

As a community, we also need to take a greater interest in how the state of New Jersey regulates its cemeteries. Simply put, New Jersey lacks effective regulation of its cemeteries. This has led to apparent abuses, especially in what some cemeteries charge for their various services. It also has resulted in poorly maintained grounds in some cemeteries and even abuses in the handling of perpetual care. There is a cemetery board in New Jersey and it does have the responsibility to regulate the state’s cemeteries, but it does a poor job of it. That should not come as a surprise, however; by state law, the majority of the cemetery board is made up of cemetery owners. Essentially, the foxes are in charge of the hen house.

In February 2008, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the New York Board of Rabbis, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Northern New Jersey joined to urge changes to New Jersey’s cemetery laws. That the RCBC and the NJBR were united in this effort should indicate how important an effort it is; until then, these two groups had not found a way to work together in many decades.

That is to our communal shame, as well, but it is not the subject at hand.

The communal shame before us is that we have allowed the cemetery issue to gather dust in Trenton. Two successive governors have ignored our requests to appoint a rabbi to the state’s Cemetery Board. Two successive legislatures have ignored our requests for legislation to help rectify the problem.

They could ignore us because the cemetery lobby has been tireless in its machinations to keep the issue from being fairly resolved. As a community, we have done little to counter those machinations.

In the next week, efforts will be made to revive this issue and these will be duly reported (at least I hope they will be). Whether we succeed in making a difference this time will depend as it always has on our communal will.

The cemetery issue has floundered for the same reason that bikur cholim committees do not function well and chevra kadishas are off most communal radar screens: We do not want to deal with death.

Deal with it we must, however, because our departing and departed loved ones deserve better from us.

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