Yesterday, our immediate family gathered to hold a Jewish headstone unveiling ceremony for my father-in-law, who passed away on April 14, 2009. Jewish tradition suggests waiting a year before setting the headstone. Our synagogue recommends setting the headstone between six to 18 months after the death. It’s a way of observing the passage of time as a part of the grieving process.
Our rabbi and cantor presided over the brief but moving ceremony. The rabbi noted that Judaism is a religion that sanctifies time, but not so much place. There is of course the revered Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the remnant of the ancient Temple, but outside of that, there aren’t many places that are held sacred, save for the resting places of our loved ones.
The rabbi noted that Jacob marked Rachel’s grave with a stone, beginning a tradition that continues to this day. Our consecration of the headstone brings together time and space, marking our love for those who have passed on with a memorial to last over the years.
The cantor sang the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew, and El Malei Rachamim, God of Mercy, a prayer that asks God to gather up the soul of the deceased. Here’s a translation of the prayer, taken from Kol Haneshama:
God filled with mercy,
dwelling in the heavens’ heights,
bring proper rest
beneath the wings of your Shehinah,
amid the ranks of the holy and the pure,
illuminating like the brilliance of the skies
the souls of our beloved and our blameless
who went to their eternal place of rest.
May you who are the source of mercy
shelter them beneath your wings eternally,
and bind their souls among the living,
that they may rest in peace.
And let us say: Amen
The rabbi also read Ecclesiastes, which provides words to reflect on the meaning of our lives. The most famous passages 3:1-8, focuses on a time for every purpose under heaven:
To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.
A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill and a time to heal …
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance …
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to lose and a time to seek;
a time to rend and a time to sew;
a time to keep silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.
The rabbi left out the last two lines, and said that this was both a time to keep silent and to speak. He invited us to share stories about the departed, which we did, with laughter and tears. After we said the Mourner’s Kaddish, we each placed a red rose on the headstone, my father-in-law’s favorite flower, and a small stone to indicate we had visited. The memory of Norman Bleicher will live with us forever.
This information is included in A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die by Gail Rubin, author of The Family Plot Blog. The book, which includes funeral traditions for many major faiths, is available in print and ebook formats at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and at AGoodGoodbye.com.