life in and around NYC is insane

Monday, September 19, 2011

visiting the cemetery

So yesterday I talked about Jewish custom and the purpose of our trip to the cemetery.  Looking at the post, it was so businesslike....

Today I'll be more emotional about it.

My mother's family is buried in United Hebrew, a small Jewish cemetery in Staten Island.  My father's family is at Beth David, in Elmont, here on Long Island.  When I was a child it would be a major event to visit United Hebrew -- my parents would pick up my grandmother and my aunts and we'd make a day of it.  Often there'd be other relatives along for the visit, too.    Young rabbinical students used to try to earn a few dollars by reciting prayers over each grave in Hebrew.  After we'd say prayers at the graves of the dearly departed, we'd gather at a local diner and the living would catch up with family business.

I was less familiar with Beth David, it being easy for my father to pay his respects without the entourage. 

I think my parents stopped dragging us on the yearly pilgrimage when I was in my teens. 

I never went to family funerals when I was a child or teenager, I think my parents wanted to shield us from such raw grief.  We'd go to the shiva house afterwards, we'd go to the unveiling, but not to the funeral itself.

I was a grown woman, recently married, the first time I went to a family funeral.  for that matter, it was the first time I'd been to anyone's funeral.  I wasn't very close to my Aunt Annie, my father's older sister, but I remember how upset my cousin Adrienne was...Beth David in the rain, and Adrienne talking to the family members buried there, telling them who was coming to join them....

There have been all too many funerals since then, all too many trips to the cemetery...

Last year, when my Aunt Bernice died, my daughters came to the funeral.  It was their first family funeral, though not the first funeral either had attended  -- that would have been the funeral of the senior class president, who died the night before homecoming the year Jen was a junior and Becca a freshman.  They hadn't been to United Hebrew since the unveiling for my grandmother, who died in 1996.  After the service we took them to see the graves of other family members.  They didn't have all those years of the annual visit to the graves of relatives they'd never me. And I realized that they were missing an important connection, and that they sought it out the day of the funeral.


Yesterday's trip to United Hebrew was bittersweet.  A cool, autumnal day, perfect for wandering in an open field...I'm the one who organized the excursion, I'm the one who drove to Staten Island.  My mother kept saying that she would have driven there herself, but we won't let her....she keeps her driving to local roads near home these days.  It's a small cemetery, but she couldn't remember the location of the family graves...we drove around for about 15-20 minutes before I finally figured it out.  My father was so frail I had to help him get out of the car and walk to the graves.  And I was the one who read the prayers...my father couldn't remember the Hebrew, so I said a prayer in English.

It was the first time in my adult life that I was there for a visit, not a funeral or unveiling.  I got a chance to really look at the headstones...my grandmother, my grandfather, my Aunt Eileen, who died when Jen was a baby.  My mother's aunts and uncles, her cousins...Bernice's grave, just aching for a headstone.  My mother says her grandfather is buried in a different section of the cemetery, across the road from everyone else...and there is an infant, buried near the trees, my grandmother's firstborn who died at birth...though we didn't visit those graves, my mother felt the need to mention that they're there.

After we prayed, my mother went to each of the graves and spoke to her relatives briefly....we couldn't find any rocks or pebbles to mark our visit, but my mother said it didn't matter, because she "left a piece of her heart" at each grave....

Live and be well, we will be back at United Hebrew soon for an unveiling.  But what was also on my mind....this is the place where my parents have chosen to be buried.  And I shudder to think when that might be.

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