The Grave Clause

There I was in the car and it was getting late. I glanced at my list. One more property to visit before I could call it a day. Okay, I would do what I had to do. The place was really out in the boondocks; I hadn’t even seen a Coke machine for about 50 miles. I followed the directions that I had laboriously copied down the previous evening and peered anxiously out of my window. Maybe I had taken a wrong turn – 10 miles back! This was one place that I didn’t want to get lost in! O.K., there was that sign they told me about, advertising Dunkleburger’s Sporting Goods. “Make a right turn after the sign and you’ll be on a country road,” were the instructions. Good; I took the turn.

Finally, I reached the property I had driven all the way out here to see. The agent sat waiting for me in his pickup truck. He had one of those country names like Billie Ray – or was it Bobby Pete – and he was about six foot four with a ponytail and a firm handshake. They really grow them big out here! He showed me around the property, and despite myself and my earlier misgivings, I found that everything he had promised me was right on the money. He had gutted the interior of the main structure and rebuilt the whole thing from scratch. It was a really nice place. Then there were all the other cottages built around the main building. When we parted an hour late, I had a tentative quote from him, and my mind was aflame with plans of all kinds.

We shook hands and got into our respective vehicles, and I put on the music for the ride home. Boy, was I tired! I couldn’t recall the last time I had had a good night’s sleep. I had been up at dawn for my shiur and the first minyan, gone home for a quick breakfast, and had been on the road since. The day before that had been pretty much the same, and the day before that, I had been on shift.

On shift? Yes, I am one of the members of the chevrah kaddisha in the neighborhood where I live. At least once a week I am on call, and if I have to do the taharah and stay with the body, that means a night without sleep. Still, I consider it a privilege to have an active part in such a holy activity. Even though it killed my nights at times.

I drove down the country lanes, thumping my hand on the steering wheel in time to the music. It didn’t help. I was fighting sleep and I was losing the battle. Not good. The best thing would be if I could pull over to the side of the road and catch a half-hour nap, but I hesitated to do so while still in the sticks. I could picture some tall guys in cowboy hats tying me up and taking off with my car and cash while I slept. No, I would have to tough this one out.

I rolled down the windows and took deep gulps of the fresh country air. It helped a little bit, but not enough. I needed to get to some place with coffee and rooms to rent. I needed a motel. But I didn’t know of any place at all in this area. The window was down, the music was blaring, and I was fighting my eyes to stay open. This was not just inconvenient, it was downright dangerous.

Wait a second, I told myself, there was a gas station on the way here. The gas station was about a 20-minute drive from where I was currently located. With the knowledge that relief was on the way, I was able to fight sleep with more determination. My efforts were rewarded when I saw the Exxon sign off in the distance. It was with great relief that I entered the station and pulled up beside the simple snack shop.

As I pushed the glass door open, the bell tinkled and the man behind the counter looked up. He was older, with shaggy gray hair that hung into his eyes. He was wearing a faded sweatshirt. I headed straight for the cold drinks. I found a nice rack of sodas full of caffeine and bought two. After getting my change, I thanked him and then decided to ask him about my chances of finding a room in the area.

“I’m really tired,” I ventured, “and I simply must find a motel or hotel in the area. I don’t think I can make it home without falling asleep.”

“You sho’ in bi-i-ig trouble,” the man replied. “They ain’t no motels or nothin’ round these parts. You should know tha-a-a-t.”

My heart dropped as I considered my options. There was no hotel in the area, and I wasn’t about to ask this shopkeeper for hospitality.

In a voice which broke with desperation, I fairly begged, “Are you absolutely sure that there is nothing in the next 20, 30, even 40 miles from here. My house is 150 miles away, and I just won’t be able to make it!”

The man closed his eyes and I was afraid that he was uttering a prayer for good aim before he went and got his shotgun. But then he opened them up and said, “You know something”? I seem to reeecall a home for the old folks not too far yonder down that-a-ways.” He pointed vaguely in the direction of the great outdoors. “ ‘Couple miles away. You might jest be in luck! They might jest have an empty room or there!”

The world was smiling again. He accompanied me outside the store and gave me his best directions, and I bought some gas from him as a thank-you for all the help. Then I turned on the ignition and fired up the buggy; we were out of there.

***

After driving for about 15 minutes I finally saw a light in the distance. I followed it and pulled up in front of Happy Acres Retirement Center for Senior Citizens. Big name for such a little place. There wasn’t much activity going on and I hoped that it was still in business. You never know about these places in the country. One day they’re in business, the next morning, boom! It’s all over.

I parked the car and walked up the wooden steps of this old-style porch, the type used by the Catskill hotels in the 1950’s, where people used to hang out and sit on the swings and stuff. Nobody does that anymore; we’re way too busy with our iPhones and Blackberries. I knocked on the door but there was no reply, so I pushed it open very gently so as not to frighten anyone, and I walked into the lobby.

There were a bunch of couches and magazine racks all over the place, and a fish tank sat bubbling on the side of the medium-large room. In the corner there was a desk, and at the desk there was an old man who was reading a newspaper and snoring to himself. I tapped lightly on the countertop. He started and dropped the paper. The pages scattered everywhere. I apologized for startling him and started putting the newspaper back together. Then I asked him if there were any empty rooms that I could perhaps rent for the night.

“We have a room or two,” he said to me. “Why don’t you fill out the forms and things, while I go tell the nurses to make up a bed for you.” He handed me a whole bunch of forms and I began signing them while he shuffled out of the room and down the hall. I could hear him talking to one of the women who worked there, and sure enough, a few minutes later, they were showing me to my room. It was down a long hallway, past a whole bunch of rooms that were occupied by elderly people.

We went inside and I was pleasantly surprised. There were pretty curtains and dried flowers on the night table, and the bed itself was quite large and the pillows fluffy. All in all, this wasn’t turning out to be as bad as I’d originally thought. So after thanking the people, I called my wife to tell her the whole story, davened Maariv, got ready for bed, said Shema Yisrael, and then turned off the light and went to sleep.

***

I was dreaming, but it wasn’t a good dream. People were shouting and there was the thud of legs running on linoleum floors. I would have opened my eyes to get a good look at what was going on, but I was just so tired. But then I woke up with a start, my heart pounding inside my chest. I tried to remember where I was and make sense of what was happening around me. In a flash it all came back to me, and I realized that I was currently trying to sleep (with little success) in the pastoral setting of Happy Acres.

But the shouting was real and I decided that I’d better get up and check out what was happening. I eased the door open a little and peeked out into the hallway. There were a whole bunch of people in white coats scurrying alongside a gurney that they were wheeling down the corridor as fast as they could. They brought the gurney over to the room two doors away from me and went inside. I realized that one of the old people who lived in the home was sick and it was an emergency. A few minutes later, they pushed the gurney out of the room, and I guess they took the man to the infirmary. The hallway quieted down again, and somehow I was able to go back to sleep.

***

The morning dawned with a mistiness which, even year later, I associate with those mornings in camp. Cocoa club, lineup for Shacharis, that type of thing. I got dressed and made sure I hadn’t left anything behind; I wouldn’t want to have to come back to this forsaken place if I didn’t have to. I headed toward the lobby, eager to settle my bill, hit the road, and make it to the nearest shul ASAP. The clerk from the night before was still behind the counter; still reading his paper, in fact. I wished him a good morning and asked him for the bill. He took his time getting it, yawning as he brought me all those papers from the night before.

“Crazy night, huh?” I said as I took out my checkbook and began writing the check.

“Yup, old Joshua Rabinowitz* went the way of all men.”

ALL NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED

“What happened?”

“Oh, Josh had a weak heart,” he replied. “Had to happen sooner or later.”

“So what are you people going to do with the body?” I asked the clerk, my heart beginning to pound.

“What we always do with the bodies that nobody comes to claim. This man had no kids, or if he did have kids, they haven’t had anything to do with him for as long as I’ve known him. In such a case, we bury them in the local cemetery.”

“But Joshua was Jewish, wasn’t he?” I asked.

“Sure he was Jewish,” the man answered.

“Well then, you wouldn’t mind if I take the body for a genuine Jewish burial then, right?”

The clerk was silent for a few minutes.

“Why do you care anyway?” he finally said.

“Because I work for the Jewish burial society; because every Jew is responsible for another, and because that has got to be a reason why I ended up at the Happy Acres home just last night out of all the nights of my life!”

“Well,” he said slowly, “I’ll have to talk to the director.”

He called the director and told him the whole story. Once I had given proof of my identity – and he called up the chevrah kaddisha to verify that I worked with them – the director was only too happy to relinquish responsibility for old Josh.

“He’s all yours,” the clerk said to me, and he gave me the death certificate and all of Josh’s paperwork. Then I had to get on the phone to the chevrah kaddisha back home to tell them to send the van down here. I spent the morning saying Tehillim next to the niftar. Eventually, the van arrived and we moved Mr. Rabinowitz out of the makeshift morgue and into the van. I had asked one of the men to bring his tallis and tefillin along with him and I chapped Shacharis right before the zman ended. Then we left. We drove along those lonely country roads, passing the broken wooden houses with shrubbery growing wild. The dogs ran alongside us as we drove through the one-street towns. Then we hit the highway and it was real quick from there.

It wasn’t long before we were performing the taharah at the beis hakevaros back home. And then we buried him in the special section in the cemetery that is reserved for people who can’t afford a plot or who don’t have anyone to take care of their needs; people like Mr. Joshua Rabinowitz. We slid the coffin in gently, and I said a fond good-bye to the man who had called me out to the middle of nowhere to ensure that he got buried in a Jewish cemetery like the Jew he was.

I had all the paperwork with me, and I figured that I might as well take care of everything right away. I went into the office, thinking that maybe there was a will to look at, and so on. As I was going through his papers, I saw a list of his previous addresses. I noticed that his last-known address before his move to Happy Acres was right here in this very neighborhood! Suddenly, a crazy idea occurred to me. I began to search through the drawers of old files. Feverishly, I took out file after file, piling them all around me in tall stacks. Eventually, my efforts were rewarded. I found the file. It was old and torn and I spread it open on the desk and read the whole thing from beginning to end. It was all there; the whole story of the clause.

***

Twenty five years earlier, our neighborhood had begun to grow. People were tired of living in the dirty city streets, and they decided to move out to the suburbs. In the first few years, whenever someone died – not a regular occurrence seeing as it was a young kehillah – we took them to cemeteries in other cities. Eventually, we needed a cemetery of our very own. So we decided to buy a plot land and design a cemetery. Plots of land, though, cost money. There was no way that our young community could finance it. So we took out an ad in the local newspaper, explaining what we were doing and asking for contributions.

Lo and behold, a Mr. Joshua Rabinowitz responded to the ad, expressing interest in sponsoring a major portion of the project. We drew up a contract, but Mr. Rabinowitz insisted on adding a certain clause. He insisted that a section of the grounds be devoted for a specific purpose. If there ever was a person who died without any children, or who had no one to take care of him or no money to buy a plot, or if anyone passed away in circumstances that would cause him to be buried among gentiles, then that person, that meis mitzvah, would be granted a burial plot in the cemetery for no charge. It was this particular clause that would come to the aid of Mr. Joshua Rabinowitz in years to come.

As heard from Chaim Adler

(Reproduced from It Could Have Been You by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer pages 237 – 244, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)

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