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"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

Musings on Atheism

Posted by shiduri on August 4, 2006

Jewish cemeteryI became an Atheist while shoveling dirt on my Mom’s coffin. The day was unseasonably warm for mid-January, and my Dad, Aunt Margaret and I took the White Wizard, our affectionately named Toyota station-wagon , to the cemetery . My Dad, who insisted on officiating at the funeral, went over the introductions he would make for the various speakers, as well as his own eulogy, while we drove. Aunt Margaret murmured the Serenity Prayer as we found ourselves clogged in heavy traffic. At first we thought the traffic was just part of the typical anonymous rush hour procession along the freeway on a Wednesday morning, but when we exited onto Forest Lawn Drive, we realized that many of the cars were exiting there too. As we drove through the cemetery gates, the cars were right behind us.

My Mom’s funeral was the social event of the season with over four hundred people in attendance.

While I waited outside the funeral chapel, I saw a sea of familiar faces. The Epsteins with whom we shared summer picnics at the Hollywood Bowl, were there. Mrs. Gerren, my first grade teacher came. I saw several of my friends, looking scratchy and uncomfortable in dark suits and dresses. Suddenly, I felt a strong grip on my arm. A ruddy face beamed at me. “Hi, do you remember me?” the man asked. I had no idea who he was, but I nodded, smiled and said hello. “How are you?” he asked. “Not to bad,” I replied. “So, how are your parents? Are they here?” he asked. Evidently, he had no idea who I was either. “My Mom is the one in the coffin,” I said, as I burst into tears.

The funeral started late because Aunt Sue and Uncle Jerry got the time mixed up. Several people spoke, but I found no comfort in their kind words.

At the grave, we read the Mourner’s Kaddish. I felt an ache of resentment that the prayer recited over the dead doesn’t mention the agony of loss, and instead focuses on the glory of G’d. I suppose that during times of intense grief, people turn away from G’d, and this prayer is designed to serve as a not so subtle reminder to return to the fold. The Kaddish is read in Aramaic, a language no longer spoken. Perhaps when the Living recite a prayer in a ‘dead language,’ they are, in those moments, flimsily connected to the deceased. When I was younger the Kaddish seemed more powerful than the other prayers, and when I would recite it, I felt as though I was doing something truly significant and almost holy. But as said it over my mom’s grave, something shifted deep inside me.

I watched my Gramma, swaddled in black, lift the first shovel-full of earth and toss it onto my mom’s coffin. I remembered that at Aunt Judy’s funeral, just two years before, my mom had stood beside my Gramma, supporting her while she performed this burial ritual. I stood near my Gramma now, afraid that she might topple into the grave, consumed by fatal grief. As I picked up a clump of dirt and threw it on to the coffin below, I ached inside angry at the injustice of life. I think its easier to believe G’d doesn’t exist than it is to pray to a G’d that allows a mother to bury two of her children.



4 Responses to “Musings on Atheism”

  1. Trixee said

    Reading this story is like recollecting a memory. I think that it’s so important to bring to the forefront the questioning of one’s belief’s after enduring something so horrendous as the death of a parent. A nicely written piece;)

  2. Oyster said

    First, let me say that his was a very heart-felt and sincere writing for you to share with us. Thank you for being brave, Shiduri.

    Upon reading this, I want to console you and comfort you that you are not alone in your feelings of mourning or loss, amongst the Jewish people. The Kaddish is indeed a powerful prayer, linking you with Jewish mourners in your family throughout the generations, going all the way back to antiquity…

    Having just finished TishaB’Av, the traditional day of Jewish Mourning, the sources that I could recommend are fresh at my fingertips. The Books of Lamentations and Job, both describe Jews who are grappling with their loss and suffering, trying to come to terms with a compassionate G-d who could also allow evil and sorrow into Her Creation. Though these sources might not offer an easy, satisfying answer, it is comforting to see that our people, our tradition, and our faith have struggled with these very same issues since the dawn of civilization. We are not alone in our suffering, no more so than the millions of Jews that have come before us.

    For our readers who are interested in learning more about Jewish grieving, here are some resources:


  3. l.c. clyman said

    Lighten up. The prayer has nothing to do with death. It is a celebration of life. Granted, your relatives suddenly got religion but let them get their guilt out of the way.

    Right now, I am sitting at a funeral home performing Shomrim and praying over a deceased until he can be buried on Sunday, but you must remember one thing, when someone passes away, people feel it is their obligation to lose their minds.

    Cut them some slack.

  4. Benjamin said

    I and my mother buried my sister in January and it strengthened my devotion to God. I suppose if you wait until a tragedy in your life to ask yourself who God is and what this world is all about, then you will come to erratic conclusions.

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