As a septuagenarian, I now find myself contemplating the disposition of my mortal remains. Pondering this weighty issue prompted me to remember the especially fractious interment of an elderly Jewish couple I knew, and its unusual resolution. It involved the final resting places of my cousin’s father-in-law, a retired judge named Solly, and his second wife of many years, Belle. (The names and identities of all of these people have been changed to respect their privacy.)
Solly and Belle both had three children from their first marriages. Ultimately, they retired to south Florida.
Solly and Belle, both in their eighties, passed away in the same year. They had given the matter careful consideration and decided to be cremated; they had even picked out the urns for their ashes. Their plans, though unwritten, were to have their urns placed next to one another in a cemetery’s columbarium: the place for the storage of cremated remains. (Fun fact: The term ‘columbarium’ also refers to the nesting boxes of pigeons.)
Solly, who died just a few months before Belle, was duly cremated. But when she passed away, it quickly became apparent that her children were unaware of her wishes to join Solly in the columbarium. One of her daughters, who was Orthodox, was appalled by the prospect of her mother’s cremation. Not only is this practice contrary to Jewish law, but many also find it to be evocative of the Holocaust.
Belle’s daughter strenuously lobbied her siblings to overrule their mother’s wishes and ultimately convinced them that she had to be buried. There was a plot available next to their father’s. So, despite the protests of Solly’s children, who knew of the couple’s wishes and wanted Belle’s remains to be next to their dad’s, she was buried in an Orthodox cemetery next to her first husband.
Solly’s children, in turn, were quite distressed by this turn of events and could not drop the matter. They desperately wanted to honor their father’s wishes. So they approached the rabbi who administered the cemetery and asked if Solly’s ashes could be entombed next to her plot, on the side opposite of where her first husband rested. The rabbi turned them down, stating that it was forbidden for a deceased person’s ashes to be buried there.
Nonetheless, they eventually came up with what they hoped was an acceptable proposal. How would it be, they asked the rabbi, if their father’s ashes were to be mixed with cement, which would then be used to fabricate a bench? This would be placed next to Belle’s plot, resulting in the couple’s wishes for their remains to be next to one another. The rabbi pondered their plan and gave it his blessing. Fortunately, Belle’s children were agreeable to this Solomonic resolution. Solly’s ashes thus became an ingredient in a bench, which is now in an Orthodox Jewish cemetery.
It was surely a blessing for this distressing situation to be resolved. There are a couple of whimsical aspects of this saga. As mentioned, Solly had been a judge; as they say, he sat “on the bench.” Thanks to this creative solution, Solomon Horowitz may be the only person who was once on the bench who became a bench.
This matter becomes even more fanciful when considering the Yiddish word bensch, a term for giving a prayer of gratitude as in “We’ll have dessert and then bensch.” Hence, one might bensch by a bench made from one who was on the bench.
Besides describing the remarkable aspects of this tale, I recount it to add to the conversation about how complicated interment decisions might be. To determine the final form of rest of their loved ones, there may be the need for thoughtful dialogue among several family members. When dealing with combined families, or families with differing kinds of Jewish observance, what seems like a simple matter can become very complicated.
Top Image: A bench at Duke Gardens in Durham, NC — not the bench described in the article. Photo credit Ildar Sagdajev