Whether he was your server or not, at some point during your meal at Butcher Block, Mark was likely to stop by your table to say hi, share a story, or just check in to make sure you didn’t need anything. “Mark with a k” he would say the first time he introduced himself to you. He was friendly, warm, loved to shmooze and to share stories from the alter heim, New York.
While we were celebrating Pesach, most of us surrounded by loving family, Mark passed away alone, suddenly, and without explanation. I found out several days later that he was still at the morgue, unclaimed and with no plans for a funeral or burial. His limited family had no funds; they explained they were unable to come to Florida and so they were planning to have him cremated.
When I learned of this, I was truly shaken to my core. Aside from deserving a proper, halachic, Jewish burial, how could a person live almost seven decades on Earth, and just disappear without a trace – no memorial, no grave, and no marker? Everyone deserves more; Mark certainly deserved better.
With one phone call, the amazing director of the new South Florida Jewish Cemetery agreed to provide a grave at no cost. Nevertheless, between the funeral home and the cemetery workers, we still needed $4,000 to make the burial happen. Without exaggeration, five minutes after posting the story on social media, I took down the solicitation since all the money was in. With one phone call and one post we were able to schedule Mark’s funeral for the next morning.
I posted the time and place of the funeral and asked people to come help make a minyan, afraid that we would not get ten men. Our Chevra Kaddisha provided the tahara, Mark was dressed in traditional tachrichin, and he was placed in a plain pine box consistent with Jewish law and practice. The time for the funeral arrived and we didn’t have a minyan, but multiple minyanim of people who came to help a fellow Jew with a kindness that could never be repaid or returned.
As I began to speak, I looked down at the aron, and then out at the crowd who had shown up and couldn’t help but wonder out loud – why did Mark, whose last name I hadn’t even known when he died, and whose Hebrew name we still couldn’t ascertain, deserve a full Kosher Jewish burial to the highest standards? In what merit did this man, who wasn’t formally a member of our community, receive such a dignified, moving sendoff, such a proper goodbye?
I quoted the Gemara in Kesubos (103b) which cryptically tells us, panav klapei ha’am siman yafeh lo, k’lapei ha’kosel siman rah lo. When a person passes away, metaphorically we can learn much from the direction he is facing. If his face was turned towards the people, it is a good sign for him, and if his face is turned towards the wall, it is a bad sign. What does this Gemara mean?
In life, individuals either face the wall or face other people. Either they care for others and spread kindness and goodness, they see people and want to connect or help. Or they face the wall, they live self-centered lives, apart from others, isolated and concerned only with themselves.
Mark certainly left this world facing the people. He was a classic people person. He drew energy from interacting with others and drew great pleasure from making other people’s lives just a little more comfortable or better. Perhaps, I suggested, it was in the merit of showing up for people that people showed up for him.
Sadly, I barely knew Mark and was only able to offer a few words, but I then invited anyone present who wanted to share a memory, anecdote or thought to do so. There were a few moments of silence, but then a co-worker of Mark’s spoke up. She shared that whenever something in the restaurant broke, Mark would grab his toolbox and fix it. No fanfare, no extra pay, sometimes without even anyone knowing. His greatest compensation was the satisfaction of knowing he had helped, that he had made a difference. She then shared that when the restaurant closed, Mark would often help her pack up leftover food and deliver it to underprivileged people who needed it.
Reflecting a few days later, a friend of mine who was at the funeral commented to me that Mark’s co-worker had in fact unintentionally answered the question I posed. The pasuk (Mishlei 10:2) states, “Tzedakah tatzil mi’maves, charity spares one from death.” In packing and delivering meals to the needy and instinctively helping without even being asked, Mark had been spared from cremation, from permanently being deleted from this world. He would forever have a resting place, a grave adorned with a monument to his life and a testament to the difference he made.
Mi k’amcha Yisrael, what a special people we belong to and what an extraordinary community we have. Although we only knew Mark as a waiter at a local Kosher restaurant and he would barely qualify as an acquaintance to most us, in the time when he needed us most, our community was there for him like family.
Life is fleeting, it is unpredictable, and we never know when our time will come. You can’t take any possessions with you, only the impact and difference you made in other people’s lives. Live each day facing the people, not just facing the wall, and in this way you, too, can leave your Mark “with a k” on the world.