Drash on Parashat Chayei Sarah
Rabbi Nathan Alfred
United Hebrew Congregation
Where would you like to be buried? Perhaps not the first question to spring to mind, but one which every responsible individual and family should be discussing. Good planning for your eventual demise includes not only making your will and telling your loved ones how much they mean to you. It involves acknowledging the need for a final resting place, and that choosing where that place is – and paying for it – ahead of time relieves family members of a huge responsibility.
Where would you like to be buried? A simple question for some: where you lived, you die. In the UPJ region, the more established synagogues have their own cemeteries, their own burial schemes and systems, even running to professional chevrei kadisha. Across Asia, not only do we lack the infrastructure of Jewish graveyards, but our membership are usually born in one country and living in another. For the ex-pats and emigres among us, the decision of where to be buried is not always an obvious one.
This week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah begins with our matriarch’s passing at the age of 127 and Abraham’s subsequent quest to find somewhere suitable to bury his wife. His dealings with the locals in Hebron reminds us of the difficulties and expense of making funeral arrangements amid the haste and urgency of a fresh bereavement. As a stranger in a strange land, he was reliant on the whims and kindness of the land-owning Hittites. Abraham engages with Ephron, politely dances the tango of cultural difference and local etiquette, and by the end of the negotiations we are none the wiser – Abraham purchases prime real estate with no discount: did he get a good deal or was he ripped off?
At the very least, Sarah has got good bang for her buck in terms of time spent in her grave. You can visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs (& Matriarchs) in Hebron until this day, either with an organized tour (often settler-led, in a bullet-proof bus from Jerusalem) or with the left-wing group, Breaking the Silence, staffed by ex-soldiers who served in Hebron. For more than three thousand years Sarah has been lying there, undisturbed by the surrounding tumult.
Compare that lengthy duration to my experiences of working in Belgium, a country that has cut short its “grave-time” to a maximum of fifty years. Some of our members took additional membership with shuls in the neighbouring Netherlands, who as yet have no such restriction on requiescendum in pace. In Asia, the pace is even quicker: in crowded Singapore, in public cemeteries exhumation occurs after fifteen years, and in Hong Kong, the law allows for graves to be dug up after just six years. If the family do not remove the remains, authorities will exhume and cremate them, burying the ashes in a communal grave.
So, where would you like to buried? May it not happen for many a year! May we all live to 120! But, in the meantime, let’s use the opportunity of Chayei Sarah to jog us and jolt us to consider our own wishes and those of our loved ones, and to put together our own arrangements for when this eventual day arrives.