Rachel’s obsession with receiving a Jewish burial confused shliach Rabbi Mendel Ceitlin – until she passed away and could not be found.
As told to Naomi Raksin by Rabbi Mendel Ceitlin; reprinted with permission from Ami Magazine
On a busy afternoon a few short weeks before Pesach, I was running errands in preparation of our community seder when my phone rang. The number on the screen was unfamiliar, and I picked it up, mildly curious.
The woman on the line introduced herself as Cara from a nursing home several miles north of our Chabad Center in Metairie, Louisiana. “We have a patient who would like to talk to a rabbi. Would you be willing to come speak to her?”
I assured Cara that I would come. As a chaplain in two local hospitals, I spent my Friday mornings visiting patients, and after my hospital rounds the following Friday, I drove to the nursing home.
I came with a box of matzah, and I held it in my arms as I followed a nurse toward the room of the woman who had requested to speak to me.
Unsure of what I would find inside, I hesitantly lifted a hand to knock on her door. “Come in!”
I stepped through the doorway and glanced around at the white walls, stark and empty. The room felt several degrees too warm, and the air was thick with the sterile scent of a hospital. “Hello,” I said to the elderly woman blinking at me from the bed. “My name is Rabbi Ceitlin. Nice to meet you.”
She scrutinized me for a long moment. “Oh, hello, thank you very much for coming! I apologize, but I can’t see very well… I’m nearly blind. I’m Rachel Levine.”
I took a step closer and placed the box of matzah on her nightstand. “I brought some matzah.”
She reached out a hand to touch the cardboard box and then turned toward me, a startled look on her face. “Oh! For… me?”
“For Passover,” I explained. “It’s in three weeks.”
She reached down to touch the box, moving it slightly closer to her as if she was worried that I might reconsider and take it back. “Thank you very much. It must be… over 20 years since I had matzah for Passover.”
Rachel shook her head, her wispy white hair brushing over hunched shoulders. She dabbed at her eyes, one hand still stroking the box. After a few minutes, she took a breath and said, “You must be wondering why I asked you to come. It’s because… I want to make sure that I will have a Jewish burial, but I don’t know how to go about it.”
“Sure,” I said. “I can help you with that. Are you affiliated with any temple or synagogue?”
She was not. She also didn’t have much contact with her family. Her daughter didn’t speak to her very often and she didn’t have a good relationship with her sisters.
As she told me a little about her life and the challenges she’d faced, I sensed the depth of her loneliness, and my heart ached for her. At this stage in her life, when she should have been surrounded by the love of family and friends, it seemed like she had no one. “I’m very worried about the burial,” she said again. “I don’t have a lot of money to cover the costs.”
I understood her concerns, but I assured her that I would help her prepare in advance; but no matter whether we had it figured out or not, I would make sure that when her time came, she would have a proper Jewish burial.
I left Rachel’s room a short time later, and reached out to the local Jewish Family Services who had helped previously in similar situations, and they told me they would be in touch with her. With that taken care of, Rachel receded to the back of my mind until after Pesach, when I returned to the nursing home to visit her again.
I walked down the hallway to her room, but when I got there, I saw another resident had taken her place. “Where’s Rachel?” I asked a nurse in the hallway.
“Oh, she’s in the hospital,” she said. Apparently, Rachel had developed an infection in her foot and she’d been transferred to Ochsner Medical Center in nearby New Orleans.
I was a chaplain at Ochsner, and so the following Friday, during my weekly rounds, I visited Rachel in her hospital room. I brought a loaf of homemade challah and sat with her for several minutes, speaking to her about her condition and the care she was receiving. She was thrilled to see me, and I told her I would be back the next Friday if she was still there. She was.
She was there the next week, and the one after that. Though her foot had healed, Rachel remained in the hospital for weeks, and then months. Eventually, I understood from the staff that she hadn’t gotten along well with the nurses and doctors in the nursing home and because she was a difficult patient, there were no nursing homes willing to take her in. In the meanwhile, she was trapped in a hospital room, physically healed, watching the seasons fade one into the next, while her own life remained at a standstill.
It was no wonder that she was often sad and depressed when I came by. She would complain about the doctors, about the care she was receiving, about the various hardships she’d endured in her lifetime. I recognized it all for what it was: the painful cry of a woman facing the last stretch of her days in a hospital room, alone. I tried to encourage Rachel through insights on the weekly parshah, hoping to cast a sliver of sunshine that would linger until the next Friday.
After several weeks, Rachel told me that my visits were the highlight of her week. She loved my wife’s challah and at this point, she knew my children’s names and would always ask about them.
“Rabbi, I am very worried about getting a Jewish burial,” she said one Friday, shortly after her transfer to the hospital.
I had spoken to the head nurse and my name was written in her file as the first person to contact if anything happened to her. I had also spoken to her daughter and put her in touch with the funeral home, and I knew JFS had been in touch. There wasn’t much money, and I figured we might need to help secure funds when the time came, but everything was essentially arranged.
“Don’t worry, Rachel,” I told her. “We got it covered. You will have a Jewish burial.” Rachel nodded her head, but I could see she was still concerned. It saddened me to see that without much to look forward to, Rachel thought often of her death and worried about being abandoned when she could no longer advocate for herself.
One Friday when I arrived at the hospital, I found a large white sign taped to Rachel’s door: “If the Rabbi comes and I am sleeping, WAKE ME UP.”
I smiled when I saw it, but it reinforced to me how little she had in her life, and how much my visits meant to her. Inside her room, I saw she also hung up another large sign on the previously blank wall behind her bed with my name in bold letters and my phone number. “If anything happens to me,” she told me, “I want everyone to know that you are my contact.”
Time moved on. The heat of summer faded into the chill of autumn and Rachel was still languishing in the hospital.
“Rabbi,” she said to me one day, her face turned toward the window where several dead leaves had gathered on the sill. “Please promise me I will have a proper Jewish burial.”
Rachel had been bringing up the topic of her death every couple of weeks. I wished there was some way to reassure her, but it seemed like whatever I said wasn’t enough to assuage her fears. I couldn’t understand why she was so worried I would abandon her in her death. “Rachel, it’s all taken care of. I promise you that I will make sure you have a Jewish burial.”
The month of Elul was a busy time at our Chabad center, but I made sure to stop by Rachel’s hospital room on Fridays. Each time she’d ask if I brought my shofar, and tears streamed thickly down her cheeks as she listened to the blasts. On Sukkos, I brought her a lulav and esrog, and again she was moved to tears.
On the first Friday after Sukkos, I was on my way to the Ochsner Medical Center when I received a call from one of the nurses. “Rachel’s not here anymore,” she told me over the line. “She’s been transferred to a nursing home.”
The news was surprising. Rachel had been in the hospital for so long, it seemed like she would remain there permanently. “Which nursing home has she been transferred to?” I asked, fumbling in the glove compartment for a pen a paper.
“I’m not authorized to tell you.”
My hands froze. “What do you mean? I’m her rabbi!”
The nurse was quiet for a moment. “Look, all I can say is that it’s in the north of Louisiana.” I hung up the phone and started searching the Internet for nursing homes in the north. There were hundreds of homes, and the information I was given was too vague to narrow it down.
When I went to the hospital the following Friday, I spoke to some members of the administration to try to glean more information on Rachel’s whereabouts. It took some time, but by the next Friday, one of the chaplains gave me the name of the nursing home. It was in a small city at the very north of Louisiana, bordering Arkansas, a five-hour drive from Metairie.
As soon as I left the hospital, I called the nursing home. “Hi,” I said, “This is Rachel Levine’s rabbi. Can I please speak to her?”
There was brief hesitation, and then a rustling sound.
Another vague blur of static and then a voice said, “I’m sorry, Rachel Levine passed away.”
I gripped the steering wheel, stunned. I hadn’t seen Rachel for several weeks, but she had seemed to be at the peak of health on my last visit. I knew that she was an elderly woman and her days were numbered; I just didn’t think her time would come so soon. “When did she pass away?” I asked.
At this point, I broke out in a cold sweat. It was Friday. Six days had passed since her death.
I leaned my head against the cool glass of the car window. “Where is she now?”
“She’s been cremated.”
For a moment, everything seemed to slow and stop. I closed my eyes, unable to think, to move, to process.
In my panicking mind, I saw an image of Rachel sitting on her hospital bed at Ochsner. She was looking at me with her pale, rheumy, nearly-sightless eyes opened wide and filled with… fear? Paranoia? as she begged, “Rabbi, promise me I will have a Jewish burial.”
How had this happened?
In shock, my voice rose in anger. “What do you mean she was cremated? Who gave you permission to do this? I’m her rabbi and she mentioned numerous times that she wanted a Jewish burial… How can you just go and cremate a body?”
“I’m sorry,” the voice said, and she truly did sound apologetic. “It wasn’t us. We don’t make these decisions. We pass it on to the funeral home.”
“Okay,” I said, drawing a breath. “Can I please have the number of the funeral home?”
When I called the funeral home and demanded an explanation, they told me they had transferred the body to a second funeral home. The second funeral home denied knowing anything about Rachel’s body.
Sitting in my car in front of the hospital with Shabbos a mere two hours away, I pressed my hands to my head, the horror of Rachel’s fate pressing on my heart. “Listen,” I said, “I know you cremated this body and I need answers. Now.”
I was put on hold, transferred, and then promised a call back. In the meantime, I drove my car home, anxious and agitated. We were making a Friday night meal at our Chabad center that night, and as I ran around putting together last-minute details, I kept checking my phone.
It didn’t seem like they were calling, and so I called them several times, until I was finally connected to one of the funeral home directors who confirmed that Rachel’s body was indeed in the funeral home. However, he refused to give me any information beyond that.
“Please,” I begged, pacing around my living room. “Just tell me one thing. I need to know. Was her body cremated yet?” I clenched my fists, fearing the worst. My pulse thudded in my throat while I waited for his response. “No, not yet. But she’s on the schedule to go in soon.”
The relief was immediate and enormous. “Okay,” I said, sinking onto the couch. “Listen to me. I need to stop this. I’m her rabbi and she needs a Jewish burial.”
“I’m sorry, we can’t do that. The next of kin already signed the forms.”
I stood up and started pacing again. “What? Who is this next of kin?”
“We’re not authorized to share that information.”
I tried to breathe through the wave of helpless frustration. “Look, I need to know who this is. I know Rachel wanted a Jewish burial, and her family was on board with the plans. Who is this person?”
“It’s a State Attorney, but I cannot give you any other information.” I asked again, and then pleaded, but he refused to tell me. I hung up the phone, my mind reeling. A Jewish body was sitting in a funeral home in Louisiana, on the verge of being cremated, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
While I tried to focus and come up with a plan, my mind kept turning to the horror of cremation; once the deed was done, there was no chance of reversal. Once again, an image of Rachel flashed through my mind. How many times had she told me she was worried about having a Jewish burial? Twenty times? Thirty times?
At this point, Shabbos was just over an hour away and that was all the time I had. Trying to think rationally, I tried to get through to Rachel’s daughter, but she did not answer her phone. My next call was to a funeral director in New Orleans that our family knew well, and I asked him to intervene on our behalf. He offered to make some phone calls, but his efforts did not yield results.
With no alternative, I called back Rachel’s funeral home director. “Look,” I told him. “I know legally you need to cremate, but I have to ask you for a favor. I promised Rachel she would have a Jewish burial. I gave her my word. For the past several months, she’s been talking about this, and I know how badly she wanted it. Please, just hold off for me over the weekend. After our Sabbath, I will reach out to her family to see what’s going on and try to figure this out.”
The funeral director was willing to do that for me.
“One more request,” I said to him before we hung up. “I know you can’t give me the name of the next of kin, but please pass on my number, and tell him that Rachel’s rabbi would like to speak to him about her burial.” I hung up the phone minutes before Shabbos, and spent the next 24 hours hoping that the funeral home director had kept his word and halted the cremation.
After Shabbos, I called the funeral home again and they confirmed that the cremation had been postponed until further notice. Relieved, I asked the woman on the line if they had also passed on my message to the next of kin. “Oh, yes, we did,” she said, “We told Tom Griffin to give you a call… He said he’d reach out.”
It must have been a slip, or perhaps the woman who took the call was not aware that I was not supposed to know, but now that I had the name of the attorney, I was able to search for him online and get his contact information. I called him right away and left a message on his voicemail. A few minutes later he returned my call.
After introducing myself to him, and asking what had gone wrong with Rachel’s burial plans, he told me that he was simply doing his job. He’d been appointed as Rachel’s attorney, and Rachel’s family had looked into the different options. They could not afford a burial so they’d opted to cremate. “Okay,” I said. “I will speak to Rachel’s daughter and sisters and arrange the burial with them.”
There was a moment of quiet and then the attorney asked, “You mean, you would pay for it?” His tone was incredulous. “I can gather the funds and make it happen,” I told him.
I had left several messages on Rachel’s daughter’s phone on Friday, and after I spoke to the attorney, she called me back and apologized for missing my calls.
“I am so sorry about the loss of your mother,” I said to her. She was strangely silent, and so I forged ahead, asking why she had opted for cremation. She told me that it was simply a matter of logistics; they just couldn’t afford anything else. Her mother had a couple of hundred dollars left over for her burial, and she didn’t have the means to pay for much more.
“What if I arrange a Jewish burial at no cost to the family?” I asked her. It took a moment until I heard a sharp inhale and then the rush of breath over the line.
“I felt so guilty,” Rachel’s daughter told me through her tears. “I knew how badly my mother wanted this, but I just couldn’t afford to pay more. I was literally crying when I signed the consent forms to cremate her. I don’t know how to thank you…This means so much to me, and I know it meant everything to my mother.”
Towards the end of the conversation, she told me a bit about her past. As a fallout of the difficulties she’d endured as a child, a festering resentment toward her mother had lingered deep into adulthood, and their relationship had never been easy. But still, she wanted the best for her mother, and she was relieved that her final request would be fulfilled.
From there, things picked up speed. Rachel’s daughter called the attorney to change the burial plans and the attorney spoke to the funeral home to terminate the cremation. While Rachel’s daughter and sisters scraped together whatever they could afford, JFS secured a donated plot at no cost from a local Jewish cemetery in New Orleans, and various rabbis from the local shuls and synagogues filled in the gaps.
On a cold, rainy day in the dead of winter, Rachel’s body was transported to the Jewish cemetery in New Orleans, her final resting place. A small band of ten men stood huddled at the gravesite to welcome the aron. None of Rachel’s family members had made it to the levayah, and the nine other men gathered there had not known her at all. But that didn’t seem to matter. Amid the somberness that comes from standing so close to death, there was a sense of unity and brotherhood amongst us as we accompanied Rachel’s body in the final steps of her journey.
While saying Kaddish for Rachel’s soul, something caught in my throat. It was an emotion too deep to explain as I said the words to mourn the loss of life, and felt the near loss of an opportunity for a person to be buried as a Jew.
After the last bits of dirt were shoveled over Rachel’s grave, I lingered in the cold for an extra moment, looking upon the freshly dug soil. In my mind, I could once again see Rachel sitting on her hospital bed.
“I’m very worried about this, Rabbi. Promise me I will have a Jewish burial.” And there I was, sitting beside her, giving her my word and thinking she was fretting for no reason.
But now, I suddenly wondered. Was it possible her soul had sensed the danger ahead? Had my casual promise to her caused a cosmic shift with the power to alter the course of her destiny?
There was no way to know, but it certainly would explain her strange obsession with her burial, despite my reassurances. Turning away from the chill, I left the cemetery behind, but something lingered, following me back to my car.
As a rabbi, my days are usually filled with trying to connect to the spark inside of Jewish souls and guiding them back home. Today though, had been different. Rachel’s soul was already back at its source; these basic, yet surreal moments had been about bringing a lost body to its final place of rest.
The enormity of what had almost been left me rattled, but it also unearthed an ever-deepening awe for the Divine Hand that guides it all. As I sat in my car, warming my hands by the heater’s blast, one wondrous thought bloomed in my mind: Rachel was finally, truly home, in both body and soul.
Shortly after the funeral, I got phone calls from Rachel’s two sisters. They apologized for not attending her funeral, and for agreeing to cremate her. They cried over the phone, relieved and grateful. A connection was instantly formed and they felt the freedom to tell me about their past.
“Growing up, we had no idea we were Jewish. Our father wasn’t Jewish, and our mother had been orphaned at a young age and raised in a Catholic orphanage. When we were in our teens, Rachel once whispered to us in the privacy of our bedroom that she thought our mother might be Jewish. Even after our mother confirmed her religion, it was always Rachel who took an interest in Judaism. She taught herself about the traditions and customs, and they meant so much to her. She was the one responsible for bringing us all closer to our roots.”
This came as a surprise to me. I had assumed Rachel had been raised traditionally since she knew so much about Judaism. There were even some Yiddish words that she frequently used. Knowing her history gave me a deeper appreciation for who she was and for the journey she had traveled, both in her lifetime and in her death.
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