The correct orientation for a coffin transporting human remains is horizontal.
John once described my older brother Nate as the “least manly” person he had ever met in his life. He meant many things by this, but most immediately, he meant that Nate was useless with the five-gallon bucket of paint we’d purchased to cover the ancient walls of my childhood home; useless with hardwood floor sanding tools; useless with a spackling knife; useless with the heavy-duty bathroom cleansers we’d purchased to give the room a good washdown before trying to fix some larger problems with the bathtub grout and caulk; useless with changing a lightbulb if it meant standing on a ladder; useless with participating in any way with the repairs needed in order to get Mom’s hundred-year-old house ready to put on the market.
Manly or not, only men were allowed to be pallbearers at the Orthodox Jewish cemetery that Mom had requested for her eternal rest. It was the day before Christmas, and there weren’t a lot of us there. Nate was assigned to one corner of the casket. Burly John, who had driven up from Atlanta to offer me moral support and incidental home improvement assistance, had another pallbearer spot, along with my elderly Uncle Jack, my dear friend Simon, and two of Mom's skinny Jews for Jesus friends who were part of the church crew who had provided friendship and emotional support in her final months of life while also hoping to convert her while she still had a chance of being saved. (I had felt no guilt for hiding Mom’s checkbook after discovering that she’d written the church a large donation from her hospice bed while high on pain medication.)
The funeral home had handed out large black umbrellas for us to take to the cemetery, but the pallbearers walked in the rain. Together, the team of six lifted the simple pine box from a stand near the hearse and began the short walk to the gravesite a few meters away.
It was not going to be an easy walk.
Almost immediately, the casket dipped precipitously toward one corner. Nate’s hands were barely ornamental props against the casket. John and my uncle quickly scrambled to change positions as the corner got closer to the ground. The background patter of the drizzling rain accentuated the human silence as the small crowd looked on, tense and motionless.
The pallbearers urgently readjusted the casket one way, then another after overcompensating. Was the lid locked down?
Within a few seconds, they found equilibrium and miraculously, they made it to the gravesite.
Somewhere in the struggle, Nate had also found a firmer grip on the casket, taking on some of the shared weight.
Mom was buried between two people with the last name Koplovich. There had been no open spots in the nearby section where her parents were buried. When looking at the cemetery map, I had chosen an empty plot between two occupied ones; I had not wanted Mom to be alone. But I also hadn’t thought to research who was in those neighboring graves. If I had, I would have realized I had put her right in the middle of someone else’s family. Later, when it was time to order her tombstone, I visited the cemetery again and looked at the tall, expensive stones in the adjacent graves and wondered whether Mom would prefer that I order a more modest stone, or an expensive one that would fit in with the neighborhood. “Are we keeping up with the Koploviches?” I wanted to ask her.