Tag Archives: gravestones

Death Phobic and Youth Centric, a VERY BAD Combination

My father Jacques/Jacob ben Perla v’ Chaim Ha Cohen, z”l/zichrono livrakha, with me, somewhere between one and two years old. We are at the Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, visiting my sister Paula bat Helen v’ Jacob, z”l, 1965 or 1966.

During the Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we look deeply at ourselves and contemplate many teachings about who we are, how we have behaved and what we need to do to correct our behaviors, mend our relationships with self, with others, with the planet and with the Divine, all of which are connected. We also work with a piece of liturgy that talks about who will die in the coming year and how that will come to be. We contemplate our mortality, our aging and the reality that not everyone present with us today will be here next year because some of us will die between now and then. Our great mystic, prophet and inspired musician Leonard Cohen, z”l, took the words directly from this prayer in his song, “Who by Fire.” He added somethings and took out somethings, but the tone of his song, is exactly the tone of the Yamim Noraim, deep, contemplative, scary, awake and facing who we are and what our end may be.

As Jewish people, we know death intimately, and have never hidden from the fact that life is precious and extremely fleeting. It must be lived well, every day. In Pirkei Avot/The Sayings/Teachings of our Fathers, which is a very pithy book of teachings by the great rabbis from over 2500 years ago, it says:

Do Teshuvah/Return/Repent one day before you die.

So, as we spin around the globe and think about who might be calling on us, at this time, I want to address our brokenness and how to get back to something a little closer to wholeness.

We live in a country called the United States of America. We are certainly not united in many ways and in others we are. Our mainstream culture is obsessed with youth, beauty (as narrowly defined by current social values, which have nothing to do with actual beauty) and health (also narrowly defined and biased). You are beautiful and valued and seen in our culture, if you conform to the aforementioned standards, which are flawed beyond belief.

Additionally we are phobic, fearful and avoid everything to do with aging or death. I’m not talking about all the creams, diets and classes you can take to help you “feel young” or look younger. These are not addressing the beauty of aging, of wrinkles and gray hair and tissues that soften. They don’t address the wisdom developed that should be treasured behind each line on our faces. Very few folks understand that we have abandoned our elders, we have abandoned their bodies, their needs and their wisdom. We do this in multiple ways, but one of the most egregious is the insistence on looking young or not showing your age. In other times and places, our aging was seen and is seen as a sign of our having survived, of our having information and wisdom and offerings to give.

Evelyn Ghoram, by Helen Redman 2001

These women, painted by my mother, were brave and strong. They were not afraid to have their story lines painted and the maps of their sorrows and joys are clearly visible. It is a testament to their courage and strength as powerful women, not afraid of who they were or who they are. My mother, as a feminist artist, has never seen anyone’s lines, bumps, body differences of size, shape, color or texture as anything other than rich fodder for her palette. In this, she is fairly unique, and while there are other artists who may have her love of line, I haven’t seen too many other artists who embrace their aging, and that of others. This doesn’t mean she hasn’t been frustrated by the physical challenges and the emotional and cultural ones, but she doesn’t devalue herself or others based on this. She’s never dyed her hair or taken hormones to make herself look younger or seem younger.

Ellen Kalal, z”l, by Helen Redman 2003

There is no judgment on my part of folks who do this, we should adorn ourselves as we wish and that includes hair color. If hormones are a good idea for you to take, based on your doctor’s directives, then they should be taken. It’s the trying to look attractive all the time, or younger than we are that I am commenting on. It’s a falsehood that serves no one.

When we hide from death and dying and try to outrun their reality we cripple ourselves and those around us from being able to learn from our life experiences, from preparing for our physical end so we can ease that passing for those we love and who love us and from offering/downloading our wisdom to others, the younger generation. If we aren’t seen as valuable or wise, who wants our information? If we don’t prepare for our deaths, when they come, and they will always come, we will not be ready in anyway, physically, emotionally, and most importantly spiritually.

Preparing for the passage to the other side is often seen as the purview of religious folks. We are often seen as intellectually challenged and mentally missing some critical intelligence and/or the ability to be rational or have discernment. We believe in an afterlife, of which there is no “scientific” proof. We think you can prepare for that and we have developed technologies and texts and artwork and teachings around it that are rich, ancient and of tremendous value. I know more about the Jewish teachings than any others, but I have studied how death is seen and looked at across this world and across religions. I don’t need to agree with how other folks see the end to value their own roadmaps of the territory.

I know my Jewish road map very well because I am the Co-Chair of my local Hevra Kadisha (Sacred Society/Burial Society). I have been present for and helped prepare many folks for burial in the over 20 years that I have served in this position. I’ve been preparing for this since I was a little girl. If you look back to the picture at the beginning of this post, you’ll see me at a grave, placing stones or playing with the rocks at my sister’s grave. I used to go to the cemetery, all the time, with my father as a little girl.

When I got older I’d go with my girlfriends Gretchen Reinhardt and Carolyn Powelson, after dance class. We were young, agile, beautiful and not afraid of our graveyard. There was a small creek/stream running through our cemetery. We would fish out the broken headstones, the vandalized headstones from the creek. We would dance among the graves. I’m not sure who began this practice, but it came naturally to us. Gretchen and Carolyn were my dance friends, but they were also part of my Quaker youth group.

My father took me to Quakers for religious instruction as a young girl when I begged him to take me to church where people believed in a Holy One. Never mind that both my parents were Jewish! I loved the Boulder Quaker meeting and you can read more about my time with the Quaker community in my piece called Quaking for the Divine: https://open-heart-open-hands.com/2014/07/23/quaking-for-the-divine-and-jubilee-part-two/

What’s relevant here is that we were religious girls, we were part of a community, and for Gretchen and Carolyn, families that had a relationship to Spirit, to Holiness, and to honoring elders. My mother honored elderly folk in the aforementioned visual arts way. My father was a Moroccan man whose elderly father was someone he treasured and maintained a correspondence with that was rich and long. My grandfather Jaimé/Chaim Ha-Cohen, z”l, lived to be 101. His father, my great grandfather, Aaron Ha-Cohen, z”l, lived to be 104 and was the chief rabbi of Tangiers, Morocco. In our families, aging and the elderly were of value.

So, in my young and agile youth, I imbibed the rich milk of caring about and valuing elders and aging. Also, we didn’t own a television until I was older. I was not parked in front of a screen in my youth. Unfortunately, due to COVID 19, and our culture’s love of youth and beauty, this is not going to be the story for many young people. How will they learn the value of elders if they are only shown models who are thin or anorexic and no one with a wrinkle graces their screens unless they are evil hags/witches/old women or nasty old men out to kill them or scare them?

In the fairy tales of my youth, there were old evil hags and nasty old men out to kill one, but there were also wise old folks and elders to heed. I know there are some good models now in the mainstream, but this isn’t enough. We need to embrace aging in our families, in our conversations, in our institutions. We need to talk about dying and the parameters around it. Do the folks we love want to be buried, cremated, transported after they die? What do we want? Where do you want to be buried or scattered. What music do you love and want played at your memorial service?

How do you want to be remembered?

This question is the crux of the matter. Have you lived your life the way you wanted? Have you shared your wisdom with others? Have you found some sense of what might help you be less afraid of this major door you will be going through? Folks have elaborate birth plans and moving plans and career plans, but somehow having a death plan has not become as common. I am saying this with a tinge of humor. Of course very few folks have a death plan, unless they have an illness that is fatal and the time to craft one. Why wait?

We all have a fatal disease whose end is death.

No one gets out alive.

So, let’s work on this as Americans, as Westerners. If you are not part of a religious culture or a tribal one, there are still lots of places for you to go. You don’t have to believe in an afterlife to prepare for your death. You can get your plan together on this side of the line.

In terms of looking at the map of what happens once you leave this earth physically, that is rich food for another post….not to worry, I’ve got lots to say and share and until then, try steeping yourself in the literature or practices of some culture or group who has great wisdom and technology around all of this afterlife territory. We are actually the outliers in not looking at this territory and there is a rich body of work, the world over, to explore. Since you cannot travel easily right now to another country or place, try picking up a book or searching for afterlife beliefs of someone Aboriginal or Cherokee or Jewish or Hindu or Sikh or Buddhist or Ancestor Worshiping or of an African Shaman or any number of other folks’ ideas. Travel in your mind and heart somewhere different and see what resonates for you.

I’ll join you there in that liminal space. I’m also available to help support and work with you. Feel free to reach out to me with your questions about where to start or your fears or ideas.

Hi Ney Ni/I am here. Actually, I’m here now, but I may not be tomorrow.

The Other Side of Birth by Helen Redman, 1994

Jubilee Part Four: Preparing Others for My Departure, Death and Distance

Moroccan Wall/Gate/Passage
Moroccan Wall/Gate/Passage

I finished yet another fast, from sundown on Monday, August 4th until sundown Tuesday, August 5th. This year, that day was Tisha B’Av. The Jewish day starts at sundown in the evening and goes until the following sundown. “…And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” B’reishit/Genesis 1:5

As my Rabbi Naomi Steinberg says:

“Every year in midsummer the Jewish calendar brings us a challenge – the holy day of Tisha B’Av, the Tenth of the lunar month of Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE, and also the day when the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and driven from Spain in 1492.”

It’s a really, really, really bad day. Many years either Hiroshima or Nagasaki day is also falling on or around Tisha B’Av. I used to fast on those days when I was younger, before I ever connected with my Judaism. The thought of eating or drinking on a day when so many innocent people were murdered just has never been something I could stomach. When I learned of the Jewish fast, it was one more link in my chain of connection to Torah and to Judaism.

This is just always a VERY horrific time of year. It has been for Jewish people for thousands of years. It is Now in Israel, it is Now in Palestine, it is Now in Syria, it is Now in Somalia, it is Now in Afghanistan, it is Now in Pakistan, it is Now in Nigeria. It is NOW everywhere that folks kill and maim and wound each other for reasons that have never and will never make sense to me. While I seek out and look for understanding and guidance around death, I have never wanted to encourage or support killing. I am always and still a pacifist.

Even so, death has been part of my journey in life from the beginning. My mother was six months pregnant with me when my almost two-year old sister Paula Andrée Barchilon died. I came into the world with death at my heels and connected to a sister who left the earth before I entered it. We crossed and have crossed paths, all my life, in a liminal space, in an other kind of place.

Maternal Echo by Helen Redman, self-portrait of my mother with me in utero two months  after my sister Paula's death.
Maternal Echo by Helen Redman, self-portrait of my mother with me in utero two months after my sister Paula’s death.

So, death has never been far away or to be avoided as a subject of exploration and study. I used to go to the cemetery where my sister was buried as a young girl. It was a quiet and special place for me, almost a secret place because it was never crowded with living folks and it was calm and ordered and beautiful. When I was a young teen my dancing partners and I used to go there in the summers. We would try to restore the graves that had been vandalized. There was a small creek running through the graveyard and idiots would break off grave-stones and throw them in this water. We would be in our leotards which were very similar to one-piece swimsuits and wade into the water and try to heft these pieces of gravestone out of the water. We would then attempt to locate the grave they went with. I remember doing this as if it were yesterday. I also remember sitting at my sister’s grave and talking to her.

I wasn’t born yet when she died, so my relationship with her was completely something happening in my heart and soul. She was my first angel, my first guide beyond this world. This connection to death started in the womb, but has continued in me as a beat that I was tuned to and interested in. All my life I have sought out knowledge and information around death.

I have also studied how other culture’s navigate and approach death and the afterlife. For almost all cultures there is something beyond this world. It is only recently that the Religion of Proof in Physical Evidence has come to the foreground of many folks’ ideas about death. I have no need to change anyone’s mind or convert anyone. People believe and engage across a great divide and along a continuum from absolute rejection and negation of anything Holy or Divine to complete engagement and relationship with Holiness. Death is a part of that dance, regardless of what you believe or don’t believe. We are all going to die as are the people we love and the ones we hate. Death is a sure and constant reality.

One of the underlying reasons for my Jubilee retreat revolves around my desire to prepare folks, as best I can, for the eventuality of my death. I hope it is fifty years from now. I’m in reasonably good health and don’t anticipate leaving this earth anytime soon. Nevertheless, I don’t know the pull-date on the Nicole Andrée Barchilon Frank label.

As I contemplate taking a retreat to look at death more fully and to give folks an opportunity to encounter my physical absence, it is with a heavy heart and a desire to grapple with something completely impossible. I need to have the freedom to yell, rage and engage with the Divine around all of this. I cannot do that with anyone other than the Holy One and I need the space and time, one needs in an intimate relationship, to tackle really hard issues. It’s not a short conversation.

…to be continued….

Nicole writes to you about death and life from her very active home in Bayside, where she will now attend to watering her garden and doing the laundry (two very mundane but solidly of this world kinds of tasks).

This piece was originally published in the Mad River Union, on August 6th, 2014. It has been slightly altered for this post.

More than One, Fifty years since my sister Paula’s Death, I remember….

Me, at the age, my sister Paula, died next to her grave in Boulder Colorado
Me, around the same age as my sister Paula when she died. I am sitting next to her grave (called the Lollipop grave) in Boulder, Colorado. This gravestone was commissioned by my parents, because while holding Paula they saw her interest in one of  DeWain Valentine’s watercolors, a heart shaped abstraction hanging in his studio. “Paula pointed to it with great animation and when we recalled that, after her death, we decided to commission DeWain to make it into a sculpture to mark her grave.”

 

Today, May 16, 2014 marks 50 years since my sister Paula died. I was inside my mother’s womb three and a half months from being born on that day. In this picture I am somewhere between two and three. My sister died three months short of her second birthday. Her death has marked my life as well as the lives of all our family. Death is a certainty for all of us, but no one wants a child to die or expects it.

I am truly a child of death, born into the grieving arms of my amazing and brave parents, who had to find love and presence to give me while being devastated about the loss of their firstborn beautiful child.

Every year at this time I light a Yahrzeit candle for her and remember her physical presence on this earth. This Jewish practice is so important to me and gives me a comfort that is beyond words. I feel connected to my sister across time and space and I remember her and honor her and recognize that her short time on this earth was real and deserves honoring.

Yahrzeit Candle and memory altar for Paula on anniversary of her death.
Yahrzeit Candle and memory altar for Paula on anniversary of her death.

My parents have gone through various different ways of mourning her over the last fifty years. There is no way to navigate the territory of the death of a child right or wrong. It is all wrong.

Everything about a child dying feels wrong and those who have to cross that territory know this in a way that others who have not cannot really speak to. I have not lost a child to death and I pray I never do, but that is not within my control. Death is a certainty, there is no way out of it.

The mainstream culture runs kicking and screaming from this reality, racing as fast as they can from the idea that we all have a date stamp on us, one that we don’t know and cannot see.

If you are a practicing Buddhist, you spend a very long time imagining and looking at your own death in all kinds of different scenarios. If you are a Tribally aligned person, from anywhere around the globe, you recognize that the spirits of those who have died are here on this earth either to help or teach or hinder us based on many different factors. If you are an African Dagara Shaman like Malidoma Patrice Somé , you have a frame-work of belief that holds you, as the progeny of an ancestor, responsible for their wrong actions and the beneficiary of their good actions. If you are Hindu, you are engaged in a circle and chain of lives lived across space and time over and over in various forms. If you are Mexican you will make a feast and an altar of memories and offerings for your dead once a year and recognize and remember them together. Here, we just foolishly hope death will go away and try to avoid the topic. I’m summarizing very deep and profound beliefs here and could write many long essays on each of these, and perhaps I will, or as we say in my tradition, “go and study.” If something here stimulates you to learn more or go deeper, maybe even into the burial root ground of your soul.

I have studied and do study death more than most folks in our society. I am a co-founder of our community’s burial society called a Hevra Kadisha. I prepare folks for burial according to Jewish tradition. I have been called by death from within the womb-safe belly of my mother. I met my sister in that liminal space between, before my birth and after her death.

She was my angel in all the dark nights of my childhood, a sweet presence that helped me find hope, or pointed out the right direction.

I visited her grave as a child and have always held a place for her in my heart.

Memoriam Collage by Helen Redman 1995
Memoriam Collage by Helen Redman 1995

When I was a teenager I would visit the graveyard with my friend Gretchen Reinhardt and we would attempt to rescue or put back together gravestones that had been vandalized.

I was never afraid in that graveyard. All those dead were my friends. It was a quiet, calm place where I didn’t have to feel all the pain of those around me. No one was teasing me or hurting me and I never felt like an alien in the cemetery. I was at home there, I still am. Death and I have always been in relationship.

Which is why everyday of my life feels like an amazing gift that I need to live fully and well. I am not running away from the knowledge that I will die, that all those I love and cherish will die. I am acutely aware of this and I know it in my cells and in my blood. My umbilical cord blood was saturated with the pain of my sister’s passing, my very core has been colored by her passing. This is not a sad story though, while at the same time being the saddest story.

I am more than okay now as I round the corner towards fifty and I pass this spot on the calendar and I touch her once again in the cycle of remembering. I know that there is more to death than an end. I know this in my body, heart and mind, in my Lev (Hebrew for Heart/Mind)  and in my soul and it is not just a comfort to me, it is a lifeline and a guiding force in my life.

I know this post will make my mother cry, but she and I have a long and deep understanding about honesty and truth-telling and being real with each other. We both have made and will make mistakes, but we are linked so very deeply in our connection to dealing with death honestly and with whatever we have to bring to the table around it. Others in my family do not often want to talk about Paula, but perhaps they will read this or maybe they won’t. My father used to take me to her grave as a child, this was not something I did with my mother. As an adult when I am in Boulder I visit her grave and place a stone on it.

Jewish folks bring stones to a grave, stones to mark that our memory for those who have left this earth is as long and durable and tangible as that of a stone or a rock. A rock has been around for millenniums and this symbolic act is our way of saying, “YOU are present for us still today.” It reminds us to do good and enact justice for those who are living. It reminds us to not throw stones, but to remember that everyone is precious and will be mourned by someone, so we shouldn’t go around killing folks EVER!

A rock says, I silently mark this territory and bear witness for you, even when you are in the ground yourself, I will still be here as a reminder of your presence on this planet, at this place.

Visiting my sister's grave October 2014, leaving stones and saying prayers and remembering.
Visiting my sister’s grave October 2014, leaving stones and saying prayers and remembering.

I have a mother who is an artist and who has been marking my presence and journey on this earth since before I was born into it. She has marked me with paint and pastel, with pencil and with cloth. Reminding me and anyone brave enough to visit this place of pain, death and life that we are always MORE THAN ONE.

We are all connected one to the other, now and forever and always and always.

I love you mommy and I love you Papa. I grieve for your loss, even still and especially, today fifty years later.

Thank you for loving me so deeply and magnificently!

Here I am, inside my mommy, right before I was born, more than one always!

More than One by Helen Redman, 1964
More than One, by Helen Redman, 1964