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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.