Tag Archives: gravestones

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