Is death itself a sin? Twenty years ago, in an English writer of the seventeenth century, I came across this sentence: “I am not so much afraid of death, as ashamed thereof.” I found it shocking then, and I do now. Here was a man for whom human mortality was a contradiction to human dignity. It is a mistake to be embarrassed by finitude, but it is a gorgeous mistake. The bay across from my mother’s house was not troubled and it was not untroubled. The waters were in a condition of mild, infinite motion. They preached the permanence of impermanence. I heard them clearly. Small boats passed back and forth, to and from the sea. The car came to a stop on the unpaved lane at the back of the cemetery. Car doors opened and closed. Arms were taken in arms. There were whispers. An indescribable sobriety. And there stood facing us the strangest thing I have ever seen: a stone that said WIESELTIER. More cars pulled up. Cousins mainly, and a few of my father’s friends. All of a sudden a winter wind arrived, out of season, for this moment. It blew bitterly. The rabbi summoned us to begin. I read a psalm: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither.” My sister read a psalm: “As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone.” The rabbi said a few words about my father, all of them true. People were shivering in the cold. I asked a younger cousin to recite the memorial prayer that beseeches a merciful God to “devise a right rest” for the departed, and he recited it in a breaking voice. The rabbi commanded my mother to remove the cheesecloth that covered the foot-stone that bears my father’s name, and the names of his brother and his sister. She did, and the names were revealed. Finally my mother had buried somebody she loved. My father, my father, buried and unveiled. It was not the sight of my father’s grave that caused me to lose control of my sadness. It was the sight of the old men huddled against the wind, the old men in their caps and coats, who had come to bury one more of their own, to harken to one more prayer for one more dead, the firm, selfless old men with the accents and the histories. My exhausted and inexhaustible elders, unmoved again by the gusts. They are getting to their end, I thought; and I loved them; and I wept. I was bursting with descent. The living and the dead, I miss them all. Then the rabbi instructed me to read another psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” I chose to sing it, in the sweet, sepulchral manner in which it as sung on Sabbath afternoons. I stepped closer to the grave and sang, and as I sang I broke away from my dread. I sang to the death of wailing. My song grew as if to make room within it for all the true and punished people who gathered around it, to shield them with its splendor and to seal them with its peace. Lean on my time, lean on my heart, lean on my fire. I will not bend beneath your load, I will not bend. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the lord forever.” The living and the dead, I miss them all. I will dance with them at the mourner’s ball Then I said the kaddish. I stood in the ashes of fury and spoke the sentences of praise. Was that voice my voice? It was no longer the effusion of woe. Magnified, I said. Sanctified. I said. I looked above me, 1 looked below me. I looked around me. With my own eyes, I saw magnificence.
Kaddish, [Vintage, New York, 1998], pp. 583-584.
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