We gathered together in the warm September sun at my father’s gravesite, just 10 days shy of a year since he died. It was the coming together of the family clan, the manifestation of four generations of the legacy that this almost 100-year-old man had inspired. But the unveiling of his headstone was much more than a time-honored Jewish tradition. It offered us a moment in our very busy lives to stop, reflect, comfort, and love each other as we honored the patriarch of our family.
Jewish tradition is replete with rituals to commemorate life cycle events. Birth is accompanied by a bris and/or a baby naming. The coming of age as a Jewish adult is marked by a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Weddings, divorces, and more recently, miscarriages, have Jewish traditions that serve to define and elevate the experience.
But the most profound Jewish traditions that almost every person will encounter at one time or another relate to losing a family member, friend or loved one. And, regardless of one’s level of observance or religious beliefs, Jewish rituals pertaining to death and its aftermath can provide concrete guidance, wisdom, comfort, and meaning.
Judaism teaches that all are equal in death. Simplicity and minimalism often are preferred, and my Dad’s headstone was no exception. Plainly engraved, his name and family status as beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather noted his most significant achievements.
While Dad was not a religious man, he identified deeply as a Jew. Before he died, I asked him what he wanted at his funeral and his answer was succinct: “Something plain and simple. With the family present.” Then he paused and added: “But be sure to remember to ask for a discount from the cemetery because I served on their board for over 60 years!”
It is not necessary, although it is often the practice, to have a rabbi officiate at an unveiling. Traditionally, the leader will recite Psalms, the El Maleh Rachamim (the prayer recited for the soul of the departed) and the Mourner’s Kaddish if a minyan of 10 people is present. Family and friends often are invited to share stories and memories at the grave as they witness the unveiling of the headstone of their loved one for the first time.
Viewing the name of a beloved family member etched in stone for the first time can be a difficult moment as it concretizes the stark realization of the finality of death. But being surrounded by a community of mourners helps to mitigate the pain of loss and assures us of the necessity of affirming life and a commitment to the living.
It is customary, before leaving a gravesite, to place a small stone on the headstone to indicate that one has visited the grave. This tradition has been ascribed various interpretations. Some suggest it may reflect the biblical practice of marking a grave with a pile of stones. Or, it may be the result of the custom of writing notes to the deceased and pushing them into cracks in the headstone, just as notes are pushed into the kotel (the Western Wall in Jerusalem.) When no crevice was available, notes were weighted down with stones. When the paper disintegrated or blew away, it left only the stone in its place. Thus, some began to think that leaving a stone was the custom … and so it became.
A most touching moment occurred when Dad’s great-grandsons, ages 8 and 11, offered each of those present a special stone that they had painted with images that reminded them of their great-grandpa. One by one, Dad’s headstone was decorated with brightly colored, hand-painted rocks sporting pictures of hearts, rainbows, and smiling faces. And while their memories of their great-grandpa may diminish with time, I have no doubt they will remember painting those rocks. Their simple expression of love is now a part of our family’s history, connecting the youngest generation to the one no longer here.
Traditionally, Jews visit graves on the yarhrzeit, the annual anniversary of a person’s death, on Jewish fast days, and before or between the High Holidays. And for those for whom visiting a grave holds meaning, it can provide a quiet time and space to remember and honor those who are no longer in our midst.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at www.amyhirshberglederman.com.