A mother’s unveiling: the undoing of closure

AFP/GETTY IMAGES The Star of David memorial covered with autumn leaves is pictured at a Jewish cemetery in Rostock, on … Continued

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The Star of David memorial covered with autumn leaves is pictured at a Jewish cemetery in Rostock, on Nov. 9, 2012. From Nov.9-10, Germany commemorated the victims of the so-called Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) that took place in November 1938.

I’m not a fan of unveilings; or to be precise, I dislike the mock drama of removing a cloth to unveil the tombstone. Jewish families have customarily recited Psalms and eulogies when dedicating a new tombstone, but it took the genius of a North American clergyman to turn the tradition of dedicating a monument into an “unveiling,” with its kitschy “voila” moment when the cover is removed. The dedication of a monument calls for thoughtful introspection, and to my mind, the drop cloth covering the tombstone trivializes a transcendent moment.

In my own career as a rabbi, I’ve made peace with the ritual of removing the cloth from the tombstone; if it inspires others, then so be it. Of course, when we dedicated my mother’s monument in Jerusalem, there was no cloth covering the tombstone. But that didn’t make it any easier for me. I had been warned by others that unveilings can reopen old wounds; and that’s what happened to me.

On a hot August afternoon, friends and family arrive at the cemetery for the unveiling; it is here that I see my mother’s monument for the first time. Done in classic Jerusalem style, the monument is a long smooth slab that extends over the entire grave. Inscribed on the top is my mother’s name, Rochel Steinmetz, information about her life, as well as a beautiful poem my brother wrote. On its’ side is an inscription for my grandfather who perished in the Holocaust, and who has no known burial place. As monuments go, this one is proper and fitting and even beautiful. And then I place my hands on the monument. Even in the hot Jerusalem air, the tombstone feels cold, and that shocks me. It is hard for me to believe that my mother, a warm maternal woman, is now gone, and all I’m left with is this cold slab of stone. My heart breaks all over again.

I didn’t go to Jerusalem looking for closure. Yes, I know that in the self-help section of the bookstore, closure is considered to be the ultimate goal of all mourners, whether they like it or not. Because of closure’s popularity, mourning rituals are only deemed worthwhile if they’re stepping stones to closure; i.e., you are only permitted to mourn if it will enable you to let go and move on. That’s why I’ve always disliked closure; it’s self centered and superficial, focusing only on the mourner and not on the one mourned. But mourning is not just an inconvenient emotion; it’s our way of continuing to love, even if the only way we can love is with a broken heart. But that’s not how closure’s champions view grief. They see mourning the same way a child looks at rainy day; an obstacle to fun that is best removed as soon as possible. I’ve seen well intentioned people advise the grieving family right after the funeral that “they have to move on.” They imagine they are helping the mourners achieve closure; in actuality, they are disrespecting the dead.

It’s now just over a year since my mother passed away. And while it took me just a few weeks to get back into my routine, the sadness of loss can still bubble up to the surface at unexpected times. Seven months after my mother’s death, my niece gave birth to a baby girl; the baby was to be named on Shabbat morning. That Saturday night, we got a call informing us of the baby’s name. As expected, the name given was named Rochel; this baby was the first child to be named after my mother. I sat down in a corner and cried, overwhelmed by the twin realizations that my mother was both gone, but not forgotten. True loss endures in a way that closure cannot change.

Even so, things are different now. Routines are the bubble wrap of the soul; keeping busy diverts your attention towards the here and now, and insulates you from pointed emotional truths. Time creeps forward, and we slowly begin to reconcile with past tragedies. There’s much to do that cannot be deferred, and I too have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.

And that’s precisely why I had gone to Jerusalem: to avoid closure. The grief-stricken cannot help but remember; for them memory is a compulsion, the central thread in a recurring loop of bereavement. But as the tragedy ages, memory becomes a choice and forgetfulness a possibility. The Talmud remarks you begin to forget the deceased after 12 months; the mind begins to erase the past to make room for the future. One 18th century rabbinic authority suggested that the very purpose of the tombstone is to arrest this instinctive process of forgetfulness, and to create a monument that will inspire us to continue to remember.

I stand at the graveside hoping to recapture memories of my late mother; I don’t want them to be swallowed up, forgotten while I move on with my life. Watching my mother pray was to see faith come to life; watching her live was to see optimism and courage in action. I learned more about love from a tray of her chocolate cake than I did in all of my Jewish philosophy classes. I will not, I cannot, let go of these memories.

The inscription on my mother’s tombstone tells posterity who she was and what she lived for. And now her deeds will be engraved on my heart as well, and even if I no longer mourn, I will still continue to remember.

The Bible talks of love as an inscription on the heart; it says “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death.” (Song of Songs 8:6). In the shadow of death, at my mother’s grave, I have dedicated a monument; but more importantly, I have dedicated my heart as well, with a love that’s stronger than death.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz serves as the rabbi of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, a 500-family congregation in Montreal. He is a blogger and a writer as well as a community leader, having served as past vice president of their federation as well past president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis, past president of the Rabbinical Council of Canada and past vice president of the Quebec Region of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

  • SODDI

    You are familiar with the cabbalistic concept of “the world of shells”?

    If you worship the dead, you worship a world of shells, a world of emptiness. Your mother is not there anymore.

    If you need a hunk of rock to remember her, maybe there is something wrong with your memory. There’s definitely something wrong with your religion.

    My mother died in June. I’ll NEVER forget her. And there is no stone.

    The world is for the living and the truth of it is that we get, we get sick and we die. There is no magic fairyland with an imaginary sky-daddy where it’s all gumdrops and chocolate.

  • SODDI

    “we get OLD, we get sick and we die.”

  • xexon

    I want to be cremated. Maybe scattered along my favorite beach. Because when you have a gravesite, people come and try to find comfort over your passing there. It’s an idolatry thing. A proxy. I ain’t home.

    The loss of a parent is one of the greatest curses children have to endure in life. You watch everybody, including yourself, get grey and start to die off. I grieve for those who have passed. Even people like your mother that I never knew. Because I’ve highly empathic. It hurts. There’s simply no way around the pain of a loved one dying.

    Memories are a treasure. There’s no physical reality to them, yet they live within us with a reality people on the outside can never experience. Religious people are big on tradition. Jews even did a movie and a song about it. But graves are one that should pass into the history books.

    Because the cold, cold ground is never warmer than the heart. Bury your loved ones there.

    x

  • cricket44

    Many condolences on your loss. My father died over 10 years ago and there are times when it feels fresh. I think it is a bittersweet blessing to have loved someone so much that you miss them so when they are gone. I rarely visit his grave because I feel him so much more where he would most likely be…in the house, with my mother. Take care.

  • dadof6

    Rabbi, Thank you for sharing your grief. I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my father almost three years ago and I share your observation that for me it’s been the times when you least expect it that the loss wells up and one is almost overcome with grief. I know that I don’t ever want closure. I hope that I continue to see dad from time to time at a ballgame sitting next to me or on a golf course throwing his hands up in frustration or dancing with mom on a sunday afternoon knowing us kids were “hiding” in the wings giggling at their love. I understand the need for people to not get stuck in their grief, frozen in their memories but I also think that closure can sometimes mean forgetting for many and I for one will never forget nor do I work for that day but against it. Thanks again for stirring the memories. JRB

  • Ron Aldi

    A couple living across the road from me had a son who was born with a fatal liver ailment. He died at the age of two on the very day his younger Sister was born. As a neighbour and part-time Cantor I was asked to officiate at the shiva.
    During the break between Mincha and Maariv I posed the question: Is there such a thing as closure? My answer was that I didn’t know. That we would always remember that lovely little boy who never had the chance to grow and develop beyond the time allotted him. We would always remember the joys he provided [us] while he was alive and could only pray that our presence at the shiva would bring some comfort to the living. Grief is an expression of love and should never be denied.
    I would like to thank Rabbi Steinmetz for his profound and sensitive reflections on closure.

  • rosenpepper

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