Like many kids, I went to summer camp to learn to sail and ride a horse and tie a bowline. I whittled green boughs into perfect marshmallow-roasting sticks and stayed up way past bedtime reading by flashlight on my top bunk. I sang raunchy songs and played capture the flag, got poison ivy and carved my initials into the cabin wall. I kissed a boy for the first time. He had blonde hair and braces and pimples, and he was as nervous as I was. We held hands for a week, and then one day on the way to dinner, he leaned over to kiss me. His wet lips felt like a slug. I was grossed out. I told him we had to stop seeing each other. Sleep-away camp presented an exhilarating opportunity to explore nature and first love and independence and homesickness. I did all that, and took lots of mediocre pictures of everything with my Kodak instamatic. The photos eventually yellowed and curled around the edges. All but one. In my mind, one image grew darker and sharper over time. It was scarier than falling off a galloping horse, and harder than righting a capsized boat. It burned worse than a bee sting and was more confusing than calculus. Thirty years later, I am still stunned and amazed at what we did at camp, for it wasn’t child’s play at all. It was a dress rehearsal for death.
“Who here has ever been to a funeral?” asked Max, picking flecks of potato chips out of his beard with his tongue. Max was the big, jolly Camp Director. His beard was like a Navajo blanket – gray and brown and white and red – thick in places and threadbare in others, prickly, and full of crumbs. We had just finished lunch – a dairy meal of tuna salad sandwiches, potato chips and brownies. I received my Jewish education at camp. My parents were secular Jews. They had a season subscription to the symphony and ate lox and bagel on Sunday. We didn’t have a television, but we had a piano and a house full of books. My religious education was left to the camp counselors, who taught us about keeping kosher, and celebrating Shabbat, singing prayers of blessing before and after meals and thanking the creator for the beauty all around us. Little did my parents know when they sent us off that summer that we would also be forced to learn about the Jewish rituals surrounding death.
“Anyone ever seen an open casket?” Max queried again. We were a group of ten and eleven year olds. The idea of death seemed as far away as Mars to us. “A tisket, a tasket, I saw an open casket,” my bunk-mate Mindy started to chant, wagging her head side to side like a rag doll. “That’s not funny, Mindy,” Max said sharply. “This is serious business.” Little spit bubbles sprayed from his mouth when he talked because he was so animated. We all looked down at our high tops and shook our heads. None of had ever been to a funeral, much less seen a dead person. The wind blew through the birch trees, giving us a momentary respite from the heat of what Max was asking.
“Today we are going to learn about the Jewish ritual of death,” he said, making eye contact with each one of us to be sure we were paying attention. “Oh, Gawd,” Jane mumbled under her breath and rolled her eyes. “We do not use the name of Ha Shem in vain. Please.” Max was stern but gentle, if not a little twisted. Jane was contrite. “Sorry, just kidding,” she muttered.
“Now girls,” continued Max, “today we are going to hold a mock funeral. Yes, that is what I said. A burial. We are going to learn the Jewish tradition. And what better way to learn than to experience it yourselves?” I was a little bit in shock. But Max had bought my grandparents’ grand piano so I thought he was sort of a family friend who could be trusted. What an irony that was: my parents were getting a divorce, and I was burying a 300-pound man in a refrigerator box at Camp Hope. Talk about the elephant in the room. There was not a lot of room for hope in my brain that summer. It was more like clinging to the sweet smell of rain and the curling tails of the clouds that swept across the lake every night, praying that I might just get picked up accidentally and harmlessly transported to a distant shore where people were nice and loving to each other and there were no mosquitoes.
“The reason you all have never seen an open casket is that Jews don’t believe in open caskets. We don’t believe in embalming either,” Max explained. “We believe that when you die, G-d breathes your soul back into the One.” We nodded seriously in agreement. “Now,” continued Max, “listen carefully. I have something in my pocket. Can you guess what it is?” He fished his plump hand into his pocket and you could see his fingers squirming around in there like a mouse inside a snake’s belly. “A $100 dollar bill?” someone said. “A yarmulke?” someone else said. “An apple?” “A stone?” It looked like he was trying to wrap his hand around something round and hard. “Nope.” He wrested his hand free from his pocket. Something was going to rip, I was sure of it. Then we saw a Spice Islands Jar, with two waterlogged raisins and some spaghetti floating in pee-colored liquid. He held the jar out to the light, turned it around like it was some rare specimen he had recently caught. We gaped. We squinted. We moved in to get a closer look.
“Do you know what this is?” What was he getting at, asking us if we had ever been to a funeral or seen a dead person? Obviously this was something dead, but what creature looked like that? “I am going to pass the jar around and you take a guess.” While we were examining the mysterious contents of the bottle, Max told us that according to the tradition, a Jew was supposed to be buried with all his or her body parts. “For example, let’s say you lose a limb, you are supposed to keep that limb so that it can be buried with you. When you return to G-d, he takes you back whole, so you need to have your whole body with you.”
“That’s weird,” said Jane. “Go take a walk,” said Max. “Come back when you are ready to be respectful.” Jane stomped off. I wanted to get away too, but I wasn’t sure how I could escape without getting into trouble. Mindy passed the jar to me. I held it close to my face. I peered through the light yellow liquid. It had a funny smell, a little sickening and sweet, like vanilla and ammonia all mixed up. The two whitish things floating in the liquid bobbed like dead fish eyes, only bigger.
As the jar was making its way around the group, Max asked, “Now girls, who knows what this is?” “Some moles you had removed?” said one girl. “The ends of your toes from frostbite?” another guessed. “No.” Max shook his head energetically. His beard created a breeze all its own. “This,” he held up the jar proudly, “this,” he repeated, turning the Spice Islands bottle just so, so the sun shone through reflecting in diamonds and making pretty prisms on the ground, “this is my vas deferens.”
A hush fell over us like an avalanche. No one moved. No one breathed. We did not know what to do. We didn’t know if we should be scared or impressed so we just stayed really, really focused and quiet because he was telling us something that was clearly important to him, and he was the Camp Director and we were the campers. I felt sorry for Max with the crumby beard and pudgy fingers carrying around his sickness in an old Bay Leaf jar like it was a rare butterfly or something. “What is it?” I whispered to my sister. “I don’t know,” she whispered back. “Looks nasty though. Raise your hand and ask him.” “I’ll get in trouble,” I said. “No, you won’t. Just ask him.”
“What are you whispering about?” Max looked at me. I looked at my sister and she shrugged. “Deborah has a question.” “What is that?” “Speak up,” said Max. “I’m sure everyone wants to hear you.
“What IS that?” I asked louder this time. “What is your vast difference?”
When Max smiled, his teeth looked yellow and waxy like cheese. “Ask your parents,” he said, like he was trying hard not to laugh. Then he got all somber again. “This was once a part of my body. Jewish law tells us that when we die, we should return to G-d whole. So I had this part surgically removed, but I kept it so that it could be buried with me.” “But what is it?” I asked again. “Is it a tumor?” I knew about tumors. I had had bad dreams about getting tumors. My mother’s best friend had tumors in her abdomen. I knew they could kill you if they were not removed in time. My grandfather had died from stomach cancer. They tried to get all the cancer, but they couldn’t, and then one day he died on his way to the bathroom. Just fell over one day, clutching his stomach, and never stood up again. I already knew two grownups who had had tumors removed from their bellies, so I was pretty sure that that was what Max was pickling in the Spice Islands Jar. I hoped he would be ok. The tumors looked pretty small and his stomach was pretty big, but maybe there was a lot more cancer hiding in there and it would be hard to find. I was worried until he said,
“This is part of my penis. I had it cut so my wife and I don’t …” but we never heard the rest of his sentence because we girls were doubled over with laughter, covering our mouths as though we could keep the embarrassment from getting down our throats and choking us. How could he say that word in public with a straight face? I laughed so hard my stomach hurt, and then I remembered what I thought was in the jar and I thought about my grandfather clutching his stomach at the end of his life and I thought about my mom’s friend whimpering through her abdominal pain and I became solemn again.
“In the Jewish tradition, we are buried in what is called a kittel, a white robe spun of pure cotton,” Max went on. “This is so we can return as naturally to the earth as we came into it.” Max furled a white sheet around his body like a toga, and knotted it with a white belt, the kind you get in karate. “It is traditional to be buried in a tallis, a Jewish prayer shawl,” Max instructed, “so I am going to use mine. This is the one I wore when I had my Bar Mitzvah thirty years ago.” He wrapped the blue and white striped cloth around his shoulders, and curled the fringes around his sausagey fingers.
“Jews are traditionally buried in unvarnished, unpainted plain pine coffins with seven holes in the bottom,” he continued. “We are going to pretend this refrigerator box is a coffin, okay?” He fished a Swiss Army Knife out of his pocket and cut seven diamond-shaped holes into the cardboard. Right through the word AMANA so it looked like it said A MAN. Then, he did something even weirder than showing us his privates pickled in a spice bottle. He got into the box and lay down.
“Now girls,” his voice boomed from inside the box, “there are some shovels leaning against that tree. Start digging until you have a nice pile of earth.” I knew deep down that some day I would need to know how to have a Jewish funeral. My parents were both alive and healthy but this was getting really freaky and I figured the sooner we started, the sooner it would all be over.
With twenty girls shoveling, it didn’t take long to amass a sizeable pile of dirt under the tree. “Now what?” we asked. “Grab a handful, and sprinkle it on the corpse,” whispered Max from the box. Was he out of his mind? “On me,” Max clarified. “Sprinkle some dirt of me.” He was asking us to bury him alive. With his wiener swimming in a bottle of formaldehyde right beside him. This was even grosser than kissing the pimply boy with braces. “Just a handful or two,” he said. “That helps the deceased begin to return to earth. And this act is your connection to the deceased. One day we will all return to earth. This lesson teaches us that death is part of life and life is part of death.”
I let the other girls go first. I stared up at the sunlight smiling down at us through the trees. I let my focus drift across the lake to the distant shore. Clouds were gathering. I loved the Minnesota thunderstorms. I loved the electricity and the green color the sky turned just before it began to rain. I loved the smell of the earth after it received the rain. I pushed my bangs out of my eyes and noticed my fingernails caked with dirt. Ten matching black parentheses. I squeezed two fistfuls of earth together and dropped them on top of Max, whose eyes were now closed. He had taken off his glasses and fallen asleep.
Summer was over. The sky was still pink from the setting sun and the fireflies had just come out when there was a knock on the door. It was our neighbor, Mrs. Kelley. “I am so sorry to ask you this, but…” She put her hand on her temple like she had a headache. “But is Delilah at home?” Delilah was the family dog, a miniature white poodle with black ears who slept at the foot of my bed. “Delilah?” I called. “Delilah-berry?” I listened for that familiar jingle of head lifting from sleep. Nothing. I ran upstairs. No familiar pounce of paws hitting the floor from a height. I ran downstairs. I looked in the garage and the backyard.
The tears came before the bad news. We found her by the side of the road, her tongue hanging out like a piece of bologna. Her eyes were open. She had looked death right in the face, but she hadn’t seen it coming. I gathered her in my arms. She was still warm. Her legs were splayed out as if in sleep, but she was stiff.
I was crying so hard I couldn’t see, but I didn’t need to. I knew what to do. I was guided by some force outside of me. I moved in slow motion. I wrapped Delilah in a white sheet and carried her to the backyard. My sister and I dug a hole under the crabapple tree. We put her in the hole, and sprinkled earth and our tears and some dog biscuits for good measure on top of her body. We knew the right prayers because we had just learned them at camp. So that is what we were practicing for. Max was right. Death was part of life.
Bad news always comes in threes. Delilah was just the beginning. A week later, my grandmother died. My parents had snuck me into the hospital, where she was “resting.” “Being watched,” they said. She had a heart murmur. Something was not normal. The doctors were going to do some tests to find out what was wrong with her heart. She died in her sleep before they ever found out. On the day of her funeral, I wore a tie. “Girls don’t wear ties,” my aunt scolded me. “Go home and put on a dress.” “But then I will miss the funeral,” I said. “I have to go to the funeral.” “You are too young to go a funeral,” my aunt said, all purse-lipped and stern. “No, I’m not,” I said. “We practiced this at summer camp and I know all about it. I want to go.” “OK,” she said, “but take off that tie. You can borrow a dress from your cousin.”
I changed my clothes, and I believe on that same day, my grandmother turned into rain. They put her body in the ground in a pine coffin with seven holes in the bottom, but her spirit rose like mist from a pond. Eventually, she would form a cloud, and then she would rain down on my face, again and again, so she would always be near me. I knew this was the truth. I had seen it that day at the lake when we were pretending to bury Max and I saw the clouds hovering over the trees. I knew that everything was connected. Max, Delilah, my grandmother. They were all my teachers, all forcing me to face what inevitably would happen to me one day. I couldn’t have asked for better training wheels for mortality.
When I was eleven, the doctor told me I needed an operation to take my tonsils out. Now it was my turn. I was not surprised, but my mother was very afraid. She had heard a story of a little girl who had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia and died on the operating table. “We have to put your daughter to sleep to do this operation,” the doctor said. “There is no other way to do it.” My mother paced and fretted. She was sure she was going to lose me. But I knew that if I died, I would get to be with my grandmother and Delilah again. We would all become one really big cloud, and we would create rainbows and cause flowers to bloom when we rained. That didn’t seem scary to me. The doctor described everything that would happen; they would give me a shot, and then have me count backwards from ten to one, and then I would fall asleep. They would take out my tonsils – which were rotten – while I was sleeping. And then, when I woke up, I could have popsicles and ice cream. “You won’t remember a thing and it won’t hurt,” he reassured me. “This is a very routine operation. Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine.” He was a nice doctor, and I believed him. “Now, do you have any questions?” The doctor put his hand on my arm. I did have one concern. How could I be whole if they took out my tonsils?
“Yes, I do,” I said. “Can you please save my tonsils for me? I need to keep them so they can be buried with me.” I felt very brave and wise for my years. The doctor looked amused. “We learned at camp this summer that you need to be whole when you return to G-d,” I explained earnestly, “so I need my tonsils.”
The surgery was uneventful. I healed well. We got a new puppy. I graduated from high school. I kept my tonsils in a Spice Islands jar on my windowsill for many years. They reminded me of that summer on the lake when I first learned how we are all connected. They reminded me of mad Max and my old dog with her limp bologna tongue and my own fragile mortality. I eventually threw them away because I felt weird saving my rotten body parts for posterity. I don’t need the physical proof any more. The experience of interconnection is hardwired into my brain by now. I don’t think kissing is gross any more but I still know how to tie a bowline. Every time it rains, the earth smells delicious and sad and I feel my grandmother’s love in my hair.
Deborah Fryer is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker living in Boulder, Colorado.
This story was originally published in The Best Travel Writing 2009 published by Travelers Tales and was awarded the Gold Medal in the Travel and Transformation Category of the Solas Awards.