why I won’t be buried with the rest of my family

Most people who know me, also know that my sister died on February 3rd 2011. It’s been a traumatic time for me and my elderly parents, and my sister’s three young adult children. Coming to terms with the death of a family member has been devastating. There have been rows and disagreements, moments of being perfectly fine and then in floods of tears, deep tears, which at times feel as if they will never stop. Anyone who has experienced grief knows that it comes in like the tide and goes out like the tide, but sometimes it just stays along the shore and you’re never quite sure when it will abate. Alongside the grief there was all the financial stuff to take care of. My sister had left all her paperwork in order, I suppose that is one advantage of knowing you are sick, the other is that if you want to, you can have the conversations most people never have, deep, meaningful, fulfilling conversations. We had many.

I took it upon myself to do probate – for those of you who don’t know what this means, probate is the term commonly used when talking about applying for the right to deal with a deceased person’s affairs. That’s what it says on the direct gov website. I could have handed the lot over to a solicitor, paid heaps of money and possibly waited a year or more for my sister’s estate to be sorted out, for inheritance tax to be paid with interest (if you don’t pay in full, six months or so from the date of death, you are charged interest on the outstanding amount). It’s not heaps of money I’m talking about, don’t get me wrong, I prefer to give the children their inheritance rather than giving it to a solicitor. Being the most impatient woman on the planet, I didn’t want to wait for someone else to do it. I never want to wait, why wait when you can have complete control and do it all when you want to? So I took it into my own hands, with occasional help from my cousin, the other executor – who lives on the other side of London and to be fair, I had all the paperwork with me, so it seemed ‘easier’ to do the majority of it alone. I called upon him for advice, and to complete final copies of all the documents, once I had drafted them in my untidy handwriting, pages and pages of them. I did probate for my uncle last year, so I knew what was ahead of me, and was rather smug about it. That’ll teach me.

Five months later, probate is through – unheard of, I am told by solicitor friends. This means we can soon start to administer the estate. It’s been incredibly hard and stressful work, and it has been work. I’ve probably spent two weeks of every month filling out forms and writing letters. The phone calls alone have taken up hours and hours of my time. My own work was set aside, but I take full responsibility, as I chose to do it. I wanted to handle my sister’s affairs, to make sure everything was carried out with dignity, ease and speed. Every phone call I made to companies about the house and bills has seen me hold back tears. Name. Address. Date of Death. Birthday. Every time. I learned it so the words came forth like an automaton, programmed to perfection. I became practiced at it. And mostly, those people from those companies were fantastic. Occasionally they didn’t know what to say, we’re not very good at death in this country, even though it is the one guarantee we have, often people don’t know what to say. My advice – say something rather than nothing, because saying nothing hurts, it does not acknowledge that something this momentous and life changing has taken place. Mentioning my sister in the same sentence as death does not sit comfortably with me, nor does it ring true. It is still impossible to believe that she is no longer alive. I reach for the phone at least once a day, I must tell Leah, I tell myself, and in that second she is alive and very much still in her house, pottering around her kitchen or garden, making dinner for her kids, cleaning and tidying and watering her plants. And then, in the next second, she is not. And every time it comes as a shock, as if I have only just heard the news. Probate, for me at least, was one of the last contributions I could make for my sister.

What, you ask, has any of this to do with my not being buried with my family?

I had to arrange for my sister’s funeral, with my Dad’s help and my cousin’s assistance. As most of you know, Jews, like Muslims, are buried swiftly, often on the same day they die. My sister was born and died on a Thursday. The Town Hall where my sister’s death would be registered, closes early on every first Thursday of the month, which meant we had to be really quick, with paperwork from the hospital where she died handed over as fast as they could manage, so that we could register her death, hand the relevant-coloured paper over to the synagogue which would guarantee that my sister could be buried on Friday. The alternative was to wait, register her death on Friday morning, and have the funeral on Sunday. I couldn’t contemplate a funeral the day after she died, I needed time to register it in my head, let alone in a book in a town hall alongside so many others. I wanted to say something, I needed time to write my words, think about what I would say, I couldn’t whip up stock sentiments, I had one chance only and I wanted to get it right. My parents were utterly distraught, my sister’s children devastated, our family and friends utterly supportive and distressed. To my sister’s kids and me, burying Leah on Friday seemed wrong, it was too soon. We agreed that Sunday would be best – not least because we knew lots of people wanted to be there and giving some notice is better than none, and a Sunday is better than a Friday, taking work and child care and travel arrangements into account. Not everyone’s lives are geared towards the Jewish way of life – and death. It seems the early Thursday closure of the Town Hall had a positive outcome after all. There were one or two ultra-orthodox relatives calling and asking why the funeral couldn’t be on the Friday – to which we said Leah would want more people to be able to send her off, rather than adhering to the religious dictates of a religion Leah followed in her own way. Leah was traditional, but people mattered more than faith.

Along with papers for Leah’s funeral, were papers about the memorial stone. There’s a long list of dos and don’ts. My Indian-Jewish-Iraqi heritage means we belong to the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, founded in 1657. Our memorial stones are flat. In the cemetery where my sister is buried, the reform Jews with their tall stones look down on us, like north Londoners on Parliament Hill looking down on south London. When my uncle died last year, my parents took care of his funeral arrangements. This meant I saw little of his memorial stone documents. This time I studied everything very carefully, because I had, of course, been thinking about my own mortality, my own death and my own funeral. The day after my sister died, in their house packed with overwhelmed relatives, my Dad asked if I intended to have a Jewish burial. I said I hoped so, but how could I contemplate that right now, just after Leah had died? Because, my Dad said, with the full knowledge that my Buddhist and once-Catholic wife, would never be allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery – never mind that she wants to be cremated – because we can have a double plot. All it means is that they dig deeper. I laughed and then I cried. Too soon to grieve, I was in that strange hyper, nebulous state, I was in pro-active, loads-to-do mode. I spoke to my wife about it, upsetting as it was, I told my Dad okay. Our many nieces and nephews would slip some of Stella’s ashes in beside me, the rest would go in the Thames or the Pacific, one large stretch of water, that is what Stella wants. The list of what you can and cannot have inscribed on the memorial stone were mostly dos and don’ts that I was already familiar with. No flowers allowed at Jewish graves, that we already know, but having visited the cemetery several times, I’ve noticed bouquets in our part of the synagogue, left by several gravesides. I shall slip some in for Leah next time I go, birthday blooms that would make her smile.

There are rules for married women and rules for single women, according to another rule, sisters and brothers cannot be mentioned by name, only as sister and brother of the deceased. But my mum has her name on her brother’s stone, and fortunately this has not been questioned by the rabbi, so I will be there, named after the kids and my parents, I will be there for eternity. I was ready to row with the rabbi about this if he challenged me, luckily for him, he didn’t. We also wanted to include some words to a song which comes from an American TV show called ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.’ These are the words we wanted alongside more meaningful ones:

Day man
Fighter of the Night man
Champion of the sun
You’re a master of karate and friendship…for everyone

Dayman Song

Some of the meaning is relevant to my sister, not the karate! We found it funny. Leah found it hilarious, it always made her roll back and smile. Leah and her kids, mostly her eldest son, used to sing this song, she would do the Uhh ahhahh and make me laugh out loud. We sang it to her – among other songs and lullabies – during the night and morning when she eased her way into death, in a quiet and unremarkable way, quiet, as she was in life. We all agreed these words would add a smile to her otherwise solemn inscription. The rabbi wouldn’t allow it. It is highly unusual – his words not mine. If they allow this kind of thing for everyone, they’ll set a precedent. Good, I said, so set a precedent. They still wouldn’t allow it. We had a feeling they might say no, and while we were all angry, we have almost accepted it. Almost. A friend whose husband is a stonemason has offered to send him round, inscribe the words. I am tempted, but I wouldn’t do it. In this instance, I play the game, stick by the rules, I wouldn’t want to offend anyone.

The words are written, a date has been set. But the rule which shocked me the most is this. Unless someone is what is called halachically Jewish, their name cannot be included on the memorial stone.

That means when I die, my wife’s name cannot go on my memorial stone. I called the stonemason, asked them about this, explained that I am gay, that didn’t seem to bother them, and asked about my wife’s name going on the stone. Oh, they said, no one’s ever asked about that before. To be fair, the stonemasons have been incredible, patient and kind at a time when stress rules my life. They said they wouldn’t have a problem with it, but the synagogue would. Given that the synagogue wouldn’t allow the words to Dayman, they are hardly going to change an archaic law that says my wife, my non-Jewish wife, cannot and will not have her name on my memorial stone. I told my mum and dad to forget about a double plot, I was not going to be buried there. My dad was surprised, but he didn’t try and make me change my mind. They both understood and accepted the reason why. My eighty-three-year-old dad has come a long way, considering it took him nine years to accept my wife. I love my mum and dad. I immediately emailed a liberal synagogue in Streatham, where I have been on several occasions, for a wedding and a naming, and I vented my anger, shared what our rabbi had said. Would they allow my non-Jewish wife’s name to go on my memorial stone? Of course they would. And that is why I won’t be buried with the rest of my family, in the same part of the cemetery as the rest of my family. They’re all there, my sister, my uncle, cousins too, and by the time I am out of this world on my way to the next, I am sure there will be a few more, filling up the ground, surrounded by countryside and beautiful views with the odd secret bouquet laid to rest. I have spent my adult life working towards equality of all kinds, crossing the boundaries of race and religion and colour and sexuality. My wife works tirelessly with gay rights groups, puts herself out in the world, never denies who she is, and all for what? To be told she cannot have her name on her wife’s memorial stone. I have not worked hard to have my relationship accepted and acknowledged in life, only to have it rejected and ignored in death. I shall either be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery or in the reform part of the cemetery where my family are and will be. Mine will be an upright stone, a stone where my wife’s name will be included, bold and significant, just as she is in my life today. I still don’t know whether the gay thing is an issue – if she was gay and Jewish would they accept her name on my memorial stone? Maybe someone can find out and let me know – not that she is going to convert, not that I would ever ask her or expect it.

I like to believe change happens, and the orthodox Jewish religion needs to change if it is to see more people coming to the faith than turning away from it. It needs to include everyone and must rid itself of so many archaic laws. As my Dad said to me the other day, it’s not the religion, it’s the men who make the rules, the men who won’t change the rules. Don’t blame the religion, he said, blame the men. I love parts of my religion, and I truly loathe others. I live in hope, perhaps the laws will be updated, perhaps the rabbis will realise how wrong they have been, to deny what I consider a human right, in death as in life. Perhaps I will be laid to rest alongside my family. Or perhaps they won’t change the rules, and I will be on one side of the cemetery while my family is on another. I know one thing, my wife’s name will be there, on my memorial stone, with words that will sing out loud. Shelley Silas wife of Stella Duffy. Wife of Stella Duffy.

37 thoughts on “why I won’t be buried with the rest of my family

  1. That was a beautiful, beautiful, emotional, warming, heartbreaking… Just stunning piece of writing Shelley. I can’t say more than that.

  2. So heartfelt, so moving — and also really interesting. It also goes to show how important it is to be thoughtful about the values we choose, as they can provide guidance during the most difficult times.

  3. Lovely, moving, wonderful piece. I hope the synagogue change their minds in time. I’m sure Stella knows how lucky she is to have you, as you are to have her; but how lucky we all are to have both of you. xx

  4. If you asked your Buddhist wife to convert, she probably would, out of love for you. But it would not be genuine. You can’t ask a Buddhist not to be Buddhist any more than you can ask a composer to forget the sound of music or an artist to forget color. I am sorry that your religion’s dogma has gotten in the way of its truth. Perhaps, you and your wife, will be the beginning of a new “family” of people to be buried unfettered by the prejudices of others. I am sorry this has brought you pain and hope that your love and insight will bring you to a place of acceptance and joy regarding your final resting place.

  5. A marvellous piece of writing and real food for thought for me as an atheistic Jew married to a strong Buddhist. Needs a lot of thought doesn’t it, when you do not completely fit into the ‘club’ and have all the rules set out for you.

  6. hello you don’t know me but i came across yr story on twitter . I am sorry that you have lost yr wife for a time. I say this because i firmly believe there is another life of some sort after this one. Yr father is so right it’s humans that make the rules. I neither will be buried with my family as i will not conform to my parentS anti gay views and the worst thing i can imagine is my loved ones not being allowed to say goodbye. Thank you for sharing and god bless you x

  7. A very moving piece covering so many issues. Interesting to hear that it took your Dad 9 years to accept Stella. My wife and I have been together for nearly 6 years and still wait for appropriate respect from her parents. We are both Jewish and have left intructions in our wills to be buried together in accordance with Judaism. I am now going to look into the question of names on stones. I wish you long life.

    1. Thanks for this Kay. I’d be interested to know if gay partners are accepted, I think on reform and liberal memorial stones they might be, as with non Jewish partners. The Orthodox lot are another matter and I have no time for any of them. As if there have never been Orthodox Jewish gay people!

  8. I’ve just read that it is Edgwarebury Lane cemetery. My Dad is buried there in the Liberal Synagogue bit. Neither of us are members of a synagogue since we haven’t found one that fits with what we want – not that we really know what that is! I agree that it is more likely to be accepted to have partner’s names on memorial stones liberal and reform. I have no time for the Orthodox either. As if indeed!!

  9. This is beautiful and moving. And, my goodness you really have found your soulmate. (Written so clearly you make it look easy)

  10. Thank you for writing so movingly about your predicament.My father died recently and can empathise with the stress of dealing with the estate.
    |My partner and I are Humanists and will therefore not encounter the restraints of religion. However, I will be interested in how you manage this dilemma.

  11. Darling Shell, well written! sorry you have been through all of that. Sadly orthodoxy is getting more and more exclusive, oppressive and restrictive. We were lucky that we managed to bury my mother is a secular cemetery and did not have to deal with the corruption of the Israeli chevra kadisha.

  12. Pingback: sant singh maskeen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s