Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler

Heaven on Earth, Heaven in Earth, Heaven in Us

Cemetery Meditation

You may have read in Temple’s August Bulletin that with my retirement coming next July 1, I’m calling the time between now and then my “Year of Lasts.” Today is such an occasion, but it is also a “First.”

Over the years, I’ve always considered this cemetery service meditation the first of my High Holy Day sermons. After the Holy Days, when I compile and publish the anthology of my sermons, this meditation is always the prelude. This then is the first of my last High Holy Day sermons as rabbi of Temple Emanuel. As such, it would be special enough, but the night before I sat down to write this meditation, I dreamed about my sister Gail.

In my dream, I was standing with a handful of other people in a parking garage with enough room for only a few more cars. One car entered carefully between a parked car and a steel post. Another car then did the same. Both cars were compact cars; still they navigated the tight spaces carefully. My sister Gail then pulled in, driving a bronze colored Cadillac, vintage 1975 and big as a boat. We called out to Gail, “Don’t pull in, the car won’t fit,” but Gail ignored our warning. Between the post on the left and the car to the right, she dented both sides of her Cadillac, and the other car to boot. The scene then changed. I was now in the car with Gail, and we were driving along a verdant country road. Gail gave me a warm “hello.” I wanted to respond with a kiss on her cheek, but I was afraid that it might distract her from driving, on top of which she had just banged up the car, so I took her hand and kissed it.

Clearly the dream’s first scene in the parking garage expressed some of life’s basic experiences: finding your comfortable place, navigating narrow straits, giving good advice, ignoring good advice and then dealing with the damage. But the dream’s second scene with my sister driving us down a country road is best understood in light of the fact that my sister died in 2004.

Surely you too have dreamed about loved ones who died. And surely you’ll agree with me that in the totality of life’s experiences, there is nothing like a dream about a loved one who has died. At that indescribable place between heartache and comfort, that unique place between emotional hollowness and emotional fulfillment, and always, always mysterious, there is nothing like a dream about a loved one who has died.

Thus, this dream, especially the second scene, proves so appropriate for this morning, this service, this time and this place.

My sister was taking me on life’s ultimate journey. The car may have been dented and damaged, but it was still drivable. The journey also is ultimately inevitable. Life’s bumps and bruises, the dents and damage all quicken the journey; my sister died at sixty-one. The best advice, indeed the only advice, is to accept this because it cannot be ignored. Yes, my sister and I were happy to be with one another, but it was also important to me that she focus on the road ahead and keep us both safe. My kiss on her hand affirmed my love. Finally we traveled gently downhill on a road bordered by green grass and trees. This morning, I will liken it to the hill that roles gently down behind me and in front of you, the hill where one, or some, or many of our loved ones are buried, the hill where one day some, or many, of you will be buried, and where one day I too will be buried. As for the distinctive color of the Cadillac, bronze coffins are a popular choice for many people today, although my sister was buried in a traditional wood coffin. So too will I.

What should we think of all this? How should we feel?

In the second century midrash of Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezar, Rabbi Zechariah taught, “Sleep at night is like this world, and the awakening in the morning is like the world to come.” The world to come is God’s reign of peace on earth, heaven on earth. This cemetery and every cemetery might be called heaven in earth. And what of our dreams about our loved ones who have died? They are heaven in us.