They buried my father today, and it was OK. Well. It was a lot better than I feared, but probably worse than he feared. His fears no longer matter. That's the thing about funerals. They are perhaps the only one of life's rituals that matter not one bit to the central person. Funerals are for the living.

The cemetery staff were wonderfully calm and efficient, without being in the least bit unctuous or false. Of course they do this sort of thing several times a day, which helps. But they made me feel well taken care of, and that made me feel they'd probably taken good care of him too. I had not expected to be asked to identify the body. They escorted me to a separate building where he lay, a corpse in a shroud, white with black stripes. I thought the stripes would be blue. The man drew back the cloth and let me see my father's face, which had not changed all that much. I said, "yes, that's my father," and then went back to sign a piece of paper that said the same.

They explained to me what more or less what would happen, but not in any great detail, and produced a phonetic copy of the prayer for the dead. They also explained that they would cut my shirt, my really nice white dress shirt that I had worn specially as a mark of respect, although to whom I don't know as everybody else was pretty casual. It's a casual society. They have other concerns. My friend and help Avi was horrified that he had forgotten to mention this, and suggested we swap shirts now. Could there have been a kinder gesture?

Then outside, beneath clear blue skies, to wait with some of my father's old friends and relations for our turn. When it came, the rabbi emerged, singing, leading the shrouded corpse on a trolley. We went into a little open building, very simple marble, where the attendants lifted the stretcher off the trolley and placed it on two black supports. The rabbi sang the prayers. At a certain point he called on me to say the kadish, which I did as best as I could without knowing what it meant.

I did this as an out-and-out atheist, and I did it willingly and gladly, another aspect of burial not really being for the central players. It matters not to my father whether I managed the kadish, but it mattered to his friends and to his relatives and that's a good enough reason. Then the rabbi came towards me, produced a craft knife from his breast pocket, and quietly cut a slash through the breast of my shirt, the good one.

This was strange. I vaguely remember the rending of clothes as being a part of the formal pattern of Jewish grief, but I confess I do not, yet, understand the significance of the ritual rend. Is it a reminder to me? A sign to others, as a black armband used to be? Both of those, and more? It turned out later that I could have refused this, but I'm glad I didn't, and I've thought about repairing it visibly, as a memento mori.

The rabbi asked me if anyone wanted to say anything. I said a few words myself, about his good friends, and then one of those friends surprised me by coming forward and reading a really lovely little speech about their rows and triumphs at bridge and Scrabble, which they played together, as she said, as if the future of the world hinged on the outcome. He'd always said she never could stop talking. I was so glad she talked this time too.

Then off we trundled to the fresh part of the cemetery, his loosely wrapped feet jouncing each time the trolley hit a little pothole. The rabbi sang us along, pausing the procession from time to time to let the stragglers catch up and equally to ensure that we arrived at the end as he arrived at the end of the prayers. Near the grave we stopped, and the attendants took the stretcher from the trolley. Avi and his son Nimrod helped. I tried to, but that was a breach of procedure. There was a third attendant waiting in the grave, and he received the stretcher as it was tipped down to him. Very gently he arranged things so that the stretcher could be withdrawn smoothly, and then those above handed down large slabs of polystyrene that he arranged over the corpse. There was a bit more work below ground and then he slid the shroud out, clambered out -- I'm not sure how, so smoothly was it done -- and suddenly they were mattocking the fresh earth down over him. I joined in. I really wanted to, and I managed to get a good few shovels in before they stopped me. I don't know whether this too was a breach of protocol, and I don't care.

This was the bit that filled him with horror, the idea of being buried without a box. He never could explain why. And I long ago stopped trying to persuade him that it was a really good idea, that if you were going to return to dust, better to do so without impeding the process with a box. People placed their stones. They left me there for a minute or two, and I placed mine. And I told his grave that in this, as in just about everything else, I had never managed to persuade him of anything. But like I said, his fears no longer mattered, and I'm glad he returned to the earth naked.

On the way back from grave we passed a fat-trunked Plumeria growing from a tomb and I said to Avi that I could think of nothing better in life than to return from death as the atoms in a Frangipani. He understood. He understood, too, why I thought it was a good idea to get the tombstone ordered there and then, and why I chose one of the simplest possible.

Another dear friend had made a little lunch for us, for no Jewish ritual can be celebrated without a little something to eat, and that was good too, giving people an unforced chance to talk about him, remember him, remember him to me.

Back at his apartment I continued sorting through a mountain of papers, and I discovered things I had not known. Like the place and date of birth of my grandmother, his mother. He had never told me. I had never asked, directly. But nor had he wanted to tell me, perhaps for fear of letting me know too much about his history. His fears no longer matter.

I walked down to the beach later in the afternoon, and ambled along the sand from one end to the other. I couldn't help but think what a lazy bugger he was, bone bloody idle. He never looked comfortable sitting on a sofa, but he was too idle to adjust his position, and denied that he was uncomfortable. After his bypass, the doctors advised him to exercise. He never did. And yet he managed to quit smoking, cold, from two packs a day to none, after his first heart attack. That required only will-power, and fear. Exercise required effort, and he always had good reasons not to.

I once offered to write him a letter a day, and would have, if he would only walk to his post office box, less than 500 metres away, to collect it. He never did. He had a glorious beach almost on his doorstep, and although he occasionally drove down there to swim in the sea, I don't recall him ever driving down there to walk.

Why bring this up? Not because I think it would have prolonged his life. But because it might have made his last few years a little less uncomfortable and less painful. He hated being old, and his way of dealing with it was to deny the effects. Last spring he amazed me by announcing that he "no longer needed" the hearing aid he had worn because meningitis left him deaf in one ear as a teenager. It became even harder to talk to him. But he truly no longer needed it, just as he no longer really needed proper shoes, because he barely walked anywhere.

As we were leaving the grave someone -- Avi? -- explained the rabbi's final words. He had said that if Sidney had offended us, we should forgive him, and that if we had offended Sidney, we were forgiven.

Sitting in his apartment, six black bags of truly unimportant papers on the floor around me, I am thankful for the ages of practice that have constructed rituals that help even the godless to deal with death. For as long as I can remember, I've feared ending up like him. My fears don't matter now.

Sidney Cherfas, son of Rebecca Chosack and Isaac Cherfas, father of Jeremy Jon Cherfas and his sister, 1923-2007.

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