Finding yourself… at the cemetery
As we begin the month leading up to the high holidays, I’ve been thinking about the tradition of visiting the graves of loved ones ahead of the Jewish new year. This wasn’t a tradition I was aware of until college, when a Jewish summer internship program included accompanying frail older adults on cemetery visits as part of our experiential service learning. Serendipitously, I was sent to the cemetery where my maternal grandfather was buried, a memory stored in the back of my mind until I started thinking recently about when and why we visit cemeteries. Aside from my grandfather’s burial, until that day of accompanying others on their visits, I’d never visited a cemetery.
Why has visiting cemeteries fallen out of practice in some Jewish communities and families? We might imagine that it’s connected to the ways in which we avoid talking about end of life in general. Death and dying have moved beyond our view over the last century, as more people die in hospitals and long term care facilities instead of at home. We may not live near the cemeteries in which our families are buried. We might have specific superstitions or fears that keep us away. But what of those who continue this tradition? And why is it a Jewish tradition to visit the cemetery ahead of the new year?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing in the last century, instructs: “The fact of dying must be a major factor in our understanding of living.” Heschel acknowledges the avoidance of death: “Yet only few of us have come face to face with death as a problem or a challenge. There is a slowness, a delay, a neglect on our part to think about it. For the subject is not exciting, but rather strange and shocking.” He explains in part: “What characterizes modern man’s attitude toward death is escapism, disregard of its harsh reality, even a tendency to obliterate grief.” And he suggests that we are “entering… a new age of search for meaning of existence, and all cardinal issues will have to be faced.” Decades after Heschel wrote this, it feels quite timely, as we face life beyond the initial crises of the pandemic, and consider what matters most in our lives after living through the death of more than one million people here in the US, and more than 6.5 million worldwide, from Covid-19.
Jewish wisdom around cemetery visits can be traced back as far as biblical times, in which we read of visits to the burial places of ancestors, both family and not. The rabbis of the Talmud, in discussing the custom of visiting the cemetery on fast days, suggest that cemetery visits are a useful reminder of our mortality. How might we consider the utility of reminding ourselves of our mortality? What might it look like if cemetery visits were part of Jewish family rituals from an early age? By the time children finish pre-school, most are able to understand death as something final and not temporary. In surveying my own friends and colleagues about their experiences visiting or not visiting cemeteries with children, I learned of the value of taking children to visit a cemetery before a visit in which they might know the person being buried – ie, the death of a grandparent would likely make for a much more difficult first visit.
I can recall the first time my own children visited the graves of the relatives for whom they are named, as we sought to make visual connections to their names in addition to the many stories shared regularly. For those families whose custom it is to name children after the deceased, visiting cemeteries can help bring those connections to life in new ways, and perhaps even demystify death in small ways.
Making the experience of visiting the cemetery part of how we live, can add a greater level of meaning to our lives, as Heschel suggests, through the experience of confronting our own mortality. Visiting the cemetery can remind us that our own tomorrow is never guaranteed and help us to gain new perspectives on how we want to live well in the face of mortality.
Visiting a cemetery in these weeks before the new year, encourages the work of teshuva, of return, a primary theme of this season, as we seek to return to our best selves, as we seek forgiveness and reflect on the year past in order to prepare for the year ahead. Whether or not it is your practice to visit the cemetery in this season, perhaps just thinking about your own experiences visiting or not visiting cemeteries can help you contemplate your own mortality as we look forward to the renewal of life in the new year.