My congregation, like many communities, has a custom of holding a short memorial service in our cemetery on the Sunday afternoon just before Rosh Hashanah. It is usually an intimate affair. Those who attend tend to be our oldest members, who frequently have generations of loved ones buried in this hallowed ground. Many of our younger members are transplants to the area (as am I, though after 22 years I have come to feel pretty well rooted here) and don't have graves to visit here. And even if we did have graves to visit, I don't know that most of us would take on this practice.
Every time I prepare to lead this service, I think about my maternal grandmother, Alice Epstein z"l, whom we called by the Czech term of endearment Lali. She grew up in Prague, and used to grouse that Americans were peculiar in our reticence to visit cemeteries. In her childhood it was common practice to visit the cemetery on Sundays, perhaps bringing a picnic, and to spend time paying respectful visits to one's loved ones who had left this life.
I think I must have heard that story from her when we visited the new cemetery in Prague together in 1993 along with several other members of my family. ("New" because it was built in 1891 to relieve the overcrowding at the old cemetery, which had been in use since the 1400s. We visited that one too, though more as a historical site than as a place of our own family history.) Where the old cemetery was a crowded jumble of ancient Hebrew-carved stones, I remember the new cemetery as being stately and green, filled with ivy and tall trees and art deco headstones.
I think of that Czech cemetery when I visit the one where I work today, because this one too is tree-lined and beautiful. And I wonder: is it Americans (as opposed to the Czech) who don't make a habit of visiting cemeteries, or is it the younger generation, no matter where in the world we are? ("Younger" in this case meaning younger than my grandparents, of blessed memory, who were born in the early years of the 20th century.) How many of us, in today's world, still live in the towns where our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents are buried?
My shul's cemetery is up in the hills just outside of North Adams proper, in the town of Clarksburg. To get there, one drives along route two and then up into the hills. One drives past houses and trees and horses at pasture before arriving at the gates to our cemetery, our "house of life." That's what Jewish cemeteries are traditionally called. The name arose because of the belief that when this incarnation ends, our souls continue to eternal life beneath the wings of Shekhinah. For many people today, maybe the cemetery is a house of life in that it reminds us that we ourselves are still living.
Anyway, our house of life is in a beautiful spot, surrounded by trees whose leaves rustle at this season as they begin to turn orange and red and gold. They'll flame brightly before they brown and fall. There's something especially poignant about holding our cemetery service surrounded by trees which are about to undergo, or are already undergoing, that change. It's so easy to experience the seasons as a metaphor for the cycles of human life.
Each year on the Sunday before the holidays I join a handful of our members in a semicircle of folding chairs and I lead them in prayer. The service itself is brief: a few prayers, a few poems, some singing which rings out against the headstones and the hills. The memorial prayer which I sing at every funeral. The mourner's kaddish, our prayer which reminds us to offer praise even in the face of death. And then the small crowd disperses to walk among the stones, to trace engraved names with wrinkled fingertips, to place pebbles as markers of our visit and our remembrance.
During this year's service I pointed out that the silent yizkor prayers of remembrance promise that we will engage in acts of tzedakah (righteous giving) in memory of those whom we have lost. I explained the traditional belief that giving tzedakah in remembrance of a loved one can help that loved one's aliyat ha-neshamah, the ascent of their soul to higher and higher levels of the heavens. Even if that image doesn't work for us, or doesn't mesh with what we believe about the afterlife, it's still a beautiful teaching.
After the service, when we were lingering at our folding chairs, someone asked what I believe about the afterlife. We talked for a while about what I believe -- I offered the image of the droplet of water rejoining the waterfall, the soul returning to its source; I offered my belief that those who have died can hear us when we need to speak to them, at Yizkor services four times a year, or when we visit them in their places of burial -- and how my beliefs fit with some of our tradition's teachings, among them the idea of gilgul ha-nefesh, the "transmigration of souls."
And then I sat for a while with a particular elder congregant, who reminds me every time we meet that when we first met he "engaged me" to officiate at his funeral. I told him, as I always do, that I remember the promise -- and that I'm glad that he hasn't yet cashed in that chit.
There is something awe-inspiring for me about being able to daven these prayers with our oldest members each year, and also with some of the children of our elders who come in remembrance of their parents. Our elders have seen a lot of rabbis come and go. I'm honored that they, along with the rest of my community, have entrusted the care of this holy community to me.
When I wake up on the Sunday before the holidays, there's always a lazy part of me which wishes -- just the slightest bit -- that I could spend this last Sunday of the old year curled up on the couch with a giant mug of coffee, the Sunday Times, and a good football game. It would be nice to relax into a little bit of normalcy and calm before the whirlwind of the Jewish holidays! But I know that when I get to the cemetery, its calm quiet will enliven me. I will remember every funeral over which I have been humbled to preside. I will greet my community's elders with gratitude for their presence and for my own. And for the remainder of the the old year, and well into the new one, I will be glad to have gone.