Rabbi Elchanan Poupko
Rabbi Elchanan PoupkoCourtesy

"Rabbi, you should be ashamed of yourself! "

These were the words used to greet me as I arrived at the Open grave that already had the casket in it, at a funeral I was supposed to be officiating.

The reason?

I was late. Very late.

No, not late to the cemetery.

I had arrived at the cemetery ahead of the family members. The funeral was a small funeral as the person who passed away did not have any children, and had very few living relatives.

His loving wife and some neighbors were going to attend, and it would be a small funeral.

We would not even have a minyan of 10 to say Kaddish.

We were already somewhat delayed and already in a relatively small formation when I was informed that one of the cars that was supposed to be arriving had not one but two flat tires on its way to the cemetery.

Two people who heard there was a Met Mitzvah (someone who had passed away with few relatives) had arrived in the cemetery from the Five Towns, but it did not look like we would get a minyan.

When family members finally arrived and went into the synagogue office to finish some of the paperwork, a close friend of the person who passed away went off to a grave nearby. When the hearse and the wife of the person who passed away were finally leaving the office, the funeral director, who was furious already by how late everyone was, dashed to the hearse and said we must go. I told him we needed another half a minute so we could wait for the neighbor who was very close to the person who had passed away to come back. He would have none of it. He dove into the car and led the other cars in a procession toward the burial site.

I delayed another minute because there was a woman they had left behind who I know was very close with the widow of the man who passed away. I knew the funeral would not take place without her. We lost sight of the cars when we left the cemetery office to join the procession. Suddenly I found myself driving up and down the endless lines of a large Long Island cemetery. I drove up and down North and South and was totally lost . All attempts to use Google Maps, WhatsApp live location, or the cemetery map did not help. The two of us simply could not find the place of the burial. I drove back to the cemetery office. Still no success. Finally, someone came back from the burial site to tell us the place of the grave. It was a half an hour later. They had already lowered the casket to the ground.

I was shocked and disappointed.

I wanted to be there for every part of the funeral. Most definitely, I wanted to make sure I was there for the actual burial.

Yet suddenly, I noticed something that astounded me: we had a minyan there to say Kaddish! Between the delays of the flat tires, getting lost in the cemetery, and everything else, there were some people who were in the cemetery anyway, drivers who stopped, volunteers who came from the Five Towns and were all there to pay a last tribute to someone who had no children who would say Kaddish for him. It was likely the only Kaddish that would ever be said for him, and God made sure we had a minyan for that.

The concept of a Met Mitzvah, someone who dies without many relatives, is one of the most sacred ones in Judaism. Making sure everyone gets a respectful burial and a final goodbye is sacrosanct. All of us who stood there saw God's Providence and guiding hand, making sure this man had a Minyan at his burial to see Kaddish for him, even if it was just for this one time.

To the amazing people who came out of their homes to be part of this amazing mitzvah: thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is an eleventh-generation rabbi, a teacher, and a writer. He is the author of “Poupko on the Parsha,” “Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays,” and “Jews of the Nobel.”