Power and pathos: a visit to the cemetery

by | May 20, 2016 | Torah Thought

This coming Monday, most Americans will celebrate Memorial Day with pilgrimages to malls and outdoor spaces. Shopping and the performance of beginning- of-summer rituals will be the order of the day. But a few of our fellow citizens will reenact the ritual that gave rise to Memorial Day, visiting cemeteries and paying our respects at the graves of those dear to us.

The cemetery and grave tending visits leading to the creation of the holiday known as Memorial Day arose separately in both Southern and Northern states during the Civil-War. By 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic Union veterans’ organization had established the last Monday in May as Decoration Day. The date, not commemorating any one battle in preference to others, avoided slighting the relatives of the fallen, no matter when the death had occurred; and more practically, flowers— for decorating the graves—were in bloom even in the colder northern states by late May. Southern States thereupon differentiated their practice by naming it “Confederate Memorial Day.” By the 20th century, the two competing sets of practices were on their way to being unified, although Congress only changed the official name from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day” in 1967.

I am often at Norfolk’s Forest Lawn cemetery on Memorial Day, and I see fresh American flags planted at the graves of veterans. One prominent marker near the cemetery entrance, of a Jewish major who was wounded at Gettysburg, and then became a lay leader of Ohef Sholom Temple, used to fly both the American flag and the Confederate “stars and bars” battle flag. The Confederate flag has been removed in the wake of recent consciousness- raising. If only Major Hart could see us now…

And that is precisely the Jewish connection to Memorial Day: the unanswered speculation about what the dead may possibly see and know, and the commitment of the living to visit those graves, regardless of the answer. The Bible emphasizes the silence of the dead:

The dead do not praise You
Nor those who descend to Silence
But we will bless God
Now and forever! Hallelujah!
(Psalm 115:17-18)

The Talmud, on the other hand, reflecting the body/soul concept that had become popular in the Jewish world after our contact with Hellenism, reflects the notions that the dead remain both sentient and interested in the world of the living, and also that the grave is the proper locus for relating to them. A Talmudic tale speaks about a man who visited the cemetery and overheard the pre-Rosh Hashanah conversations of two of the dead interred there. One would fly to the Heavenly Tribunal and hear the decree ordained for the coming year, return to the grave, and tell her neighbor. The man, eavesdropping, made a fortune on this insider information, until the souls became aware that the living were listening in. (Tractate Berakhot, 18b)

Not the austere focus on this one, brief lifespan, but the consoling view of unending posthumous bliss in the Presence of the Divine came to characterize Jewish belief, at least until comparatively recently. In the past two centuries, non-Orthodox movements have moved (in this respect) closer to the Biblical focus, while Orthodoxy has retained the Rabbinic sense of the matter, even amplifying it by incorporating the speculations of the Kabbalists.

Practice contains the echo of ideology, although one needs some learning to hear that echo and reconstruct the original message. We visit the graves of ancestors before the High Holidays (“Kever Avot”) because, traditionally understood, that’s when our own lives are on the line, and we need “friends in high places,” namely, our relatives now in Heaven, to amplify our prayers. As children used to sing on the playground (to the melody of Chopin’s funeral march), “pray—for—the dead— and—the dead—will pray—for you.” We visit the grave of a deceased spouse before remarrying, because we literally need that spouse’s blessing. Just think of the dream scene in Fiddler on the Roof: Tevye concocted the dream, but Golde believed that Frume Sara really came all the way from the Next World, because in that society, the structure of common belief made such a dream plausible.

For some, today, this mental universe is still home. Part of me is slightly envious— it’s so nice to live in a comfortable home. For others, that’s not our world, and we can’t force ourselves to believe what is not plausible.

But we don’t have to know these ultimate mysteries of a person’s posthumous destiny to find great meaning and to live by it. For me, a visit to the cemetery contains power and pathos. It tells me that, evanescent as our life-spans may be, we live in the presence of Eternity.

In Your hand are the souls
of the living and the dead
The life of every creature,
the breath of all flesh
Into Your hand I entrust my spirit;
You will redeem me, LORD,
God of truth.
(Siddur, the evening liturgy)

When I place a stone on the monument of a loved one, I am proclaiming a connection that continues to have undiminished significance for me.

If a tree falls in the forest, and none heard it, has it made a sound? Yes, because God has heard it. When a person dies, and then all who have remembered him, has he still lived? Yes, because God remembers.

May your Memorial Day contain moments of true memorialization!

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel