We must remember to bring the little rocks. Often we forget; and there are none on the ground. They have been removed by thousands of visitors, each of whom needs a supply of rocks. A strange, yet moving, tradition. Those rocks. They show we’ve been there. Whom do they show this to? Surely not those lying unknowing, nestled in the earth. I suppose they show it to the others who still live amongst us. They will see that these people have visitors. They have not been forgotten. They are still loved. Their children continue to come and place stones upon their graves.
It is an annual tradition for us. Usually it is right before Rosh Hashanah but our internal clocks tell us that now is the time to go, at the dawning of September even if the new year doesn’t begin until the dawning of October. Too late. It gnaws at us. Let’s go now. The holidays may be late this year but that doesn’t mean that we will be.
So we convene at the cemetery. Four of us. Two children and their two spouses, all aged now. All already older than those we visit were when they left us. They would find it hard to believe that their children were becoming infirm. Cataracts. Back trouble. Arthritis. And those are the minor conditions! Such is life.
The Jewish cemeteries around New York City are veritable cities themselves. They have street signs. They have STOP signs. They have paved roads and maps and speed limits. They are veteran New Yorkers, crammed together in a space too small for their numbers. These are not pastoral places of beauty and peace. These are crowded spawns of the city that needed them. And it’s that city that they reflect. Many are in New Jersey or on Long Island but it is New York that has birthed them.
Or is it? Some of these gravestones seem to speak of other worlds. Those with pictures tell us they are probably from Russia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Some of the names don’t sound American. They speak to us of Jewish immigration and settlement. Of striving. Like those we visit today. My inlaws. My husband’s parents, Bernard and Fannie Skopp, born in Poland, died in Brooklyn. A typical biography in this city of the dead.
They came with nothing, but not alone. Each of them came with parents and siblings. In the 1920s. Desperate for better lives. No professions. Minimal educations. Tremendous drive and yearning for better lives in the goldena medina.
Their lives were hard and they struggled but their children did well. Their children and grandchldren and great grandchildren succeeded, became educated and thrived. Also typical.
Bernie died first. He was 73 and the funeral home director tried to convince us that Dad deserved better than a plain unfinished pine box. It was a slick presentation. In love and grief my husband weakened. I bolstered him. No. It shall be a plain pine box. My sisterinlaw and her husband agreed. And so it was.
The burial place had long been predetermined. They had bought graves from their burial society. This was a group, like a club really, of like minded people (in other words, all Polish immigrants) who had banded together and bought burial ground. The names of the officers still stand guard at the site which bears a gate in testament to their organization. They were to be buried among people that they knew. And so it was. Did it matter? Were their meetings going to continue? Clearly not but I suppose there’s some illusion of being with friends that’s comforting…..at least when one is still alive.
The funeral took place and the plain pine box descended into the earth. Within a year, as opposed to the Israeli tradition of 30 days, a gravestone was placed on the grave site. The etching on the stone was carefully considered. Of course the basics would be there: name in Hebrew, date of death, age. Those were easy. But we all wanted something to tell the world who and what this beloved person was. Something succinct. This too was easy. We described him as a gentle man.And today, many years later, I know how inspired that choice of words was. In fact he was a gentle man.
Fannie died at age 78, several years after Bernie. Her last years were wretched and death was welcome. The same push for an elaborate casket was similarly ignored and she was laid to rest, finally at peace. And months later, we repeated the discussion of the etching. This too was easy. She was as we chose to describe her a spirited woman.
So we had a spirited woman resting for eternity next to a gentle man and it was all a perfect reflection of their beautiful relationship, in life and in death. May they rest in peace.