A Life of Service


Avreml Zingelwald kicks off his shoes and jumps into the freshly dug grave. He’s done this a thousand times before. It’s his job.

Yankel Vozserzach hands him the body. They’ve done this so often, multiple times a day, that their movements are fast, mechanical, sterile.

This lumpy body in its shrouds could just as easily be a sack of potatoes. Avreml scoops the stretcher out from underneath it, and arranges a row of cinderblocks above it. They don’t use coffins in Israel, so the body can decompose faster.

When the maggots eat the flesh of a decomposing body, explains the Talmud, the soul feels like it’s being pricked with a thousand needles. Better get that nastiness over with quickly, they say in Israel.

So the body just sits there while the crowd eulogizes it in a singsong voice of anguish that is perfectly calibrated to make you cry. Dead men are covered in a Tallis. Women just have a white shroud.

And you can make out the overall contours of the body, and you can pretend it is just sleeping, not dead; and you can try to guess if they have its arms crossed over the chest or straight by its side and many other musings that your mind conjures up to distract you from the starkness of the moment.

Avreml recites the appropriate verses at the appropriate times.

“He sits in the shade of the Lofty One.” He climbs out of the pit and puts his shoes back on.

“In the shade of Shaddai, he rests.” He uses a trowel to drag some dirt into the grave.

“One thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand on your right.” Sobs emerge from the crowd.

“They can’t approach you.” Avreml carries right along, speaking so quickly only a learned ear can make out what he’s actually saying.

“I shall satiate him with long life, and I shall show him my salvation.”


Avreml climbs back in to the blue Chevra Kaddisha van with its extra tall roof. Benches line either side of the walls, facing two blunt metal hooks in the center that hold up the stretcher.

He slams the door shut and they drive out of the cemetery.

On the way out, the van passes by the children of the deceased, who have not gone down to the gravesite.

When a person spills seed, each potential sperm that is lost becomes a demon, and greets the person when they enter heaven. “Why did you not give us the gift of life?” Demand millions of incensed sperm-monsters, jealously pointing at the man’s actual children. “They got to live! What about us?”

And so, as to not antagonize them further, the Jerusalem tradition is that children don’t enter the cemetery.

They say attending to a body is the ultimate form of kindness, one that will not be repaid. This may be true psychologically, but economically it does pay quite well, and at this point Mendel dunks the bodies in the Mikvah and cuts their fingernails as stoically as one might prepare a sandwich.

He washes his hands six times, and prepares for his next ultimate act of kindness.

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