In Judaism, one of our most important mitzvot (commandments) is what is known in Hebrew as chesed shel emet. Loosely translated as dignity for the deceased, we Jews believe that every human being deserves to be buried back in the earth with respect and honor.
In my twelve years as an ordained rabbi I have had the chance to fulfill this commandment countless times by officiating at funerals. This past week was the most unique funeral I have ever been a part of and it was also one of the most meaningful examples of chesed shel emet.
Over a month ago I received a phone call from a Christian funeral home in Mount Clemens, Michigan. While Mount Clemens had a Jewish community a couple of generations ago, I don't believe there any Jewish people living there now. The funeral director, Michael Kolb, told me that he had an unusual case of a Jewish woman who died and asked if I would officiate at the funeral in Port Huron. I knew this was an odd situation because according to Jewish custom, we bury our deceased immediately after death meaning that most funerals I officiate take place a day or two after I'm called. In this situation, Mr. Kolb asked me if I was available for a funeral a month later.
He then explained the situation to me. It turned out that a homeless woman named Eleanor Denise Smith was killed in a hit and run accident in Port Huron last year. She had identification in her belongings, but without confirmation from a family member, investigators couldn't positively identify her. After someone mentioned that they knew her from San Francisco, a chest X-ray from there was found in late November, providing a positive identification.
Kolb did some research and found that Smith's mother was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Port Huron. Port Huron also once had a small Jewish community, but now there are only a handful of Jews left and the cemetery doesn't even sell burial plots anymore. Kolb wanted to do the right thing and bury Smith beside her mother at the Jewish cemetery in Port Huron.
Before Smith was positively identified as a Jewish woman, her body was given to Kolb's funeral home in January and cremated there. Kolb then launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign in February to raise the funds to bury Smith with her mother. After a few days there wasn't much money raised, however, following an article in the Times Herald donations began pouring in and finally reached $2,880.
The funeral services for Eleanor Denise Smith were held this past Wednesday at Mount Sinai Cemetery in Port Huron. Close to twenty people, all of them strangers to Smith, gathered around the grave site for the burial. Since there were no relatives in attendance, I began the eulogy by explaining that our community and everyone gathered around the graveside are the family of Eleanor Denise Smith. I explained how we were each fulfilling the commandment of chesed shel emet and ensuring that one of God's children returned to the earth with dignity. I feel honored to have been able to have a small part in ensuring that Eleanor Denise Smith had the funeral that she deserved.