By Batya Schochet Lisker
“Rabbi Schochet, please help me,” Rabbi Chaim Leib Hildeshaim implored.
“A woman in my community is set on cremating her mother when she passes. She is currently in ICU in critical condition, and her end is near. Her body will be burned and pulverized,” his voice cracked in obvious desperation, emotions threatening to take over.
“I have tried every argument I can think of to convince her otherwise and explain the eternal distress and pain she will cause to her mother’s soul, as it will never find peace. It’s like talking to a wall. I am at my wit’s end!”
“She is a very determined woman. She has already called a funeral home to transfer the body from the morgue when the time comes and given instruction for her mother’s remains to be cremated. Tell me what to do,” he continued.
Rabbi Hildeshaim is the Chabad Shliach serving the Russian community in Thornhill, Ontario. My father (Rabbi Dovid Schochet OBM) listened to him and then quietly responded, “Speak to this woman again. But this time, find out what her reasoning is, listen to her. Don’t try to convince her; instead, attempt to understand her.”
The Rabbi took my father’s words to heart. He found a quiet moment to catch up with the woman in a hospital waiting room. He listened in contemplative silence as the woman explained her thinking.
The next day, Rabbi Hildeshaim called back, agitated and concerned, “She is uninterested in participating in a Jewish burial because she does not plan on staying in Toronto. She wants her mother cremated so she can take her ashes with her. Her urn will grace her mantelpiece and be next to her forever in her living room, wherever she lives. In this way, she will never be alone. She will have a piece of her mother with her. Now what?”
My father did not hesitate for a second. He was renowned for finding creative solutions to complex problems. He told the Rabbi to say to the woman to cut her mother’s hair and preserve it. In this way, she could have a part of her mother with her regardless of where she chose to live while still allowing for her mother to have the dignity of a proper Jewish burial.
The woman accepted my father’s suggestion. The day before her mother passed away, she plaited her mother’s hair into a braid and then cut it off as a keepsake. The next day, the woman’s mother was laid to rest. The Rabbi ensured that her mother had the dignity of a full Jewish interment, including ritual purification, funeral, and burial in a plot in a Jewish cemetery, as well as a tombstone and the recital of the Mourner’s Kaddish.
A meis mitzvah is a dead person who has no one to arrange their proper Jewish burial. It is incumbent on every individual to take responsibility and ensure such a burial. This chesed shel emes, “kindness of truth,” is the purest, most altruistic act since no one is around to acknowledge the favor. There are no thanks, no accolades, no payment. But G‑d sees this kindness.