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Mama Deb
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Mama Deb [userpic]
Let's *all* play cultural assumptions

I was reading a rather good SN fanfic and got stopped short by what I'm assuming is a minor (really minor) head on collision of cultural assumptions.

It's Danny's funeral. (Yeah, I know. Bear with me - it's something that Never Happened.) Sam has been given a handful of dirt to throw on the coffin.

And. Uh. See, I've been to Jewish funerals with all flavors of rabbis, and all levels of observance. And, yes, we do toss dirt on the coffin. But, whether it's a symbolic thing before the machines or cemetery guys come and fill the hole, or it's friends and family filling it themselves, there is one thing we do. We use a shovel. It's not that there's anything wrong halachically with using hands, it's just that shovels do the job *better*. I mean, it's customary for some people to use the back of the shovel first just to make a difference, and, I suspect, to make it easier for the less strong people to do their part - use the the back, you can just...shove a little, use the front, you have to *scoop* - but not hands.

And I don't know the author, and maybe she is Jewish and where she lives or in her family, they do use hands (as I said, nothing halachically wrong with it), but I suspect that she isn't. And either she simply went on a basic and not unreasonable assumption that this is a universal custom, or she did do some research on a reasonable level. To whit: asking a Jewish friend if Jews toss dirt on their coffins, and the Jewish friend saying "Yes", the one asking really if Jews toss the dirt by the handful, and the other saying that they do, indeed, use shovelfuls. This is cultural assumptions coming from both sides. To me, using a handful of dirt is inefficient. Perhaps, to Christians, using a shovel is impersonal.

And, see. I know the handful of dirt is a custom, but I haven't absorbed it because it's so different from my personal experience. So the author's assumption is perfectly reasonable. It's just. Odd to read.

Especially since she got everything else just right, and the story is lovely.

Current Mood: amusedamused

Huh? Americans usually throw dirt on the grave with their hands? I must not have paid attention during all those tv funerals, I never noticed that. My assumption of "normal" is that shovels are used for this. I mean I haven't been to many funerals (I think three or four, and all Lutheran) but the dirt was always thrown on the coffin with a little shovel. Here it's sort of a special small shovel especially for this purpose.

See? There we go again.

We use regular garden shovels.

I have a number of memories I'll always carry with me. One is the sight of the men of my synagogue standing in a circle and silently filling up the Judge's grave. Took about fifteen minutes with eight or so shovels. Another is seeing Jonathan's cousin Matthew heaping dirt on his beloved grandmother's coffin and not letting anyone else take a turn until he was exhausted.

At the funerals I've been to the shovel thing was more symbolic, the shovel itself is small (though with a long shaft like a regular shovel, if more slender) and each person throws three small shovels of dirt on the grave, the minister first. I figured it is always three shovels not more or less because of this formula "earth to earth, ash to ash, dust to dust" that is said. But the actual burial is done afterwards, not by the guests, but by the cemetery's gravediggers.

See, and every funeral I've been to, all of them either RLDS or Baptist or non-denom...we never threw any dirt at all. I've never actually seen a casket being lowered into the ground, for that matter, and I've been to a good dozen funerals (lots of older relatives). Fascinating. Learn something new every day.

I've been to several Christian funerals (Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, most recently) and I've never seen the attendees apply dirt to the graves at all. If the "handfuls of dirt" thing is leaking over from Christianity, it's coming from a different part of Christianity than I've seen.

For what little this anecdotal evidence is worth...

Actually, I've been to family funerals (Conservative Jewish) in south Texas where handfuls of dirt were thrown. There was a shovel available; some folks used it, others used their hands. In all cases, though, the dirt each person moved was largely symbolic; the bulk of the actual burying was done after we had left, presumably by cemetery employees or something. (I never asked.)

So -- it may not be common, but it happens at least sometimes. :-)

*Nod*. I know Northeastern customs. They may well vary elsewhere.

Okay. I'll play. (I really do need to upload that Jewish icon already.)

I was raised Orthodox (Conservadox if you'd rather) in Philadelphia, and our custom is to use hands, not shovels. {shrug} The community I'm in now uses shovels, but I still prefer to feel the dirt with my fingers. Makes it even more real to me somehow.

Shabbat Shalom.

Yeah, but doesn't it take a long time to fill the hole?

There isn't anything I can see wrong with hands, other than efficiency. I mean, we all scrabble around the dirt looking for stones anyway.

at both my grandparents' funerals, we had an envelope of dirt from israel from which we (their brothers and sisters, children, and grandchildren, and in my grandmother's case, my grandfather) each threw a bit on the coffin before the actual replacing of the earth, the actual burial, took place. we just held onto the envelope, though -- didn't scoop the stuff out with our hands. and then the first shovelful of cemetary dirt went in with the back of the shovel.

I have seen that done. In fact, I wished I had some when my father a"h was buried.

My rabbi at the time wouldn't let us (my brother or me) do any of the burial because he's Lubavitch, and they don't believe a child should actively bury a parent. And I know other groups believe differently.

I've heard of the throwing-a-handful custom, but at the relatively small number of funerals I've been to, people just walked away after the graveside service, and the cemetery employees lowered the coffin and covered it later.

That may be partly because the cemetery my family uses requires ( due to local ordinances, they say) all graves to have a concrete liner with a lid, (a 'vault') so it required fairly heavy equipment to lower it, seal the liner, etc. and therefore the 'handful of earth' ritual would require hanging around while all that was done.