Fields of Memory

Fields of Memory

What burial grounds and tombstones say about our personalities, cultures and traditions.

Cemeteries are not isolated burial grounds unto themselves — they are tied to people’s lives through customs and beliefs. Within their walls are intimate expressions of love, grief and faith, as well as expressions of both individual and group identity. They are places where the feelings human beings have for their dead are displayed in tangible and artistic ways; places where relationships between the living and the dead are maintained.

Every summer of my New York City childhood, just before Rosh HaShanah, my family would plan a visit to my maternal grandmother, Baba, who lived near Boston. We would have a family reunion with Baba’s three sisters and their children and grandchildren. Our appointed meeting place was at the cemetery where Baba’s husband was buried, his grave marked by a deep coral-colored granite stone bearing the inscription: “His life is his monument.” Then we would proceed to the cemetery where Baba and her sisters’ parents and maternal grandmother were buried. Visits to kever avot, the graves of ancestors, before the High Holidays are customary since it is traditionally believed that ancestors can intercede with God on behalf of their descendants; we might be inscribed for a good year based on their merit if not our own.

At each grave my father would chant the hauntingly beautiful memorial prayer El Maleh Rachamim, originally composed to honor the memories of Jews martyred in the Crusades. At the conclusion of this petition to God to provide our dead with a resting place in the Divine Presence, we would each bend down to pluck a handful of grass from the ground and place it on the grave. Sometimes the grass remained, but sometimes it would blow away even as we were placing it atop the gravestone. In my mind this recalled verses often recited in the Yizkor service “The days of mortals are like grass; they flourish like a wildflower in the field. The wind passes over it and it is gone, as though it had never been there,” (Psalms 103:15-16). However, others suppose this custom originated as a reference to the ultimate resurrection of the dead in the end of days as an interpretation of the biblical verse, “They shall spring up as the grass of the field.”

Sometimes when we approached a gravestone we saw little stones placed there by other visitors. This widespread custom now is experienced primarily as a sign of honoring the dead by showing that they have been visited. In earlier times, this honored the dead in more practical ways as well. In one form of burial, after the dead were interred the site was covered by a cairn, a mound of stones, both to mark the site and to protect the body from animal predators. When one passed a gravesite, adding a stone to the pile perpetuated the site; it also enabled mourners and passersby to participate in the mitzvah of burying the dead. An echo of this shared privilege and obligation, the mitzvah of burying our dead, remains at funerals today with the practice of mourners rather than cemetery workers filling in the grave with dirt. It is also possible that the superstitiously inclined believed stones on the grave would help keep the dead where they belonged, preventing the unhappy dead from causing harm to the living. The notion that stones would weigh down the soul or spirit of the dead is precisely the reason that some people today give for their family’s tradition of not placing stones on graves.

For many, gravesites serve as points of contact with the deceased; they are places where it seems the spirits of the dead must hover. In Europe it was customary to visit the cemetery before a wedding and invite the souls of relatives to attend. There is a belief that part of the soul of a righteous Jew who has died remains at the grave. Thus, when people visit the grave it is as though they are visiting the person. When the long-time leader of the Lubavitcher chasidic community Rabbi Menachem Schneerson was of this world, his followers would visit him or write to him to ask for his blessing and advice. Now people visit the grave where he is buried alongside his father-in-law and predecessor Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson in an ohel, a building that surrounds their graves, in Old Montefiore Cemetery, Queens. In addition to leaving stones on their monuments, many visitors leave kvitlach (little notes), asking the rebbes for their blessings, informing them of recent activities and asking them questions — with the faith that the rebbes will find a way to answer them. Those who cannot make the visit in person can fax or e-mail their letters to the ohel.

Every year when my family visited the graves of our ancestors we noted the same neighboring gravestones as well. Especially vivid to me are the memories of the monuments of two teenagers. One was a boy whose brief sojourn on earth was marked by a gravestone carved in the shape of a tree trunk that had been chopped down, a traditional Jewish gravestone symbol for a life cut short. The other was a girl whose stone was personalized with an oval-shaped porcelain photograph. This stood out since graven images of the dead on Ashkenazic Jewish gravestones are not common.

The part of our visits that most appealed to me was the telling of what I thought of as “cemetery stories.” At their parents’ graves, Baba and her sisters would tell stories about their parents and grandmother, evoking a past era and conjuring up the essence of the dead. Upon leaving the cemetery, we rinsed our hands as a purifying rite since according to Jewish tradition contact with the dead renders one ritually impure.

The reunion continued year after year but beginning in my teenage years, the ratio of living to dead shifted, as many of the visitors became the visited. Stories continued to be told. Many years later when my brother’s then 5-year-old son Michael came on his first visit we were touched by the level at which he “got it” when he observed that the cemetery “helps us to know who we are.” Nine years ago, Baba’s name was added to the coral-colored granite stone.

Every grave tells a story. As tributes to the departed, grave markers convey identity. Each marker records the existence of an individual upon this earth and signifies an attempt to personalize a parcel of land in the sprawling public space of the cemetery. At their most basic, grave markers name the deceased and give dates of birth and death. Epitaphs are carefully crafted to convey the essence of the dead. Gravestones might also indicate affiliations with cultural, occupational and religious groups. Many Jewish gravestones bear a Magen David or Star of David. The gravestones of kohanim, descendants of the priestly clan, often bear the image of two hands outstretched in the position to bestow birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing; the gravestones of Levi’im might bear a water pitcher and bowl to symbolize the ritual role of the Levi as the ritual washers of the hands of the Kohen.

Several years ago I worked on a project documenting cemetery traditions in New York’s ethnically diverse borough of Queens. Cemeteries are quintessential Queens. When a series of ordinances enacted in the 1800s progressively restricted burials in increasingly crowded Manhattan, churches, synagogues and commercial cemetery developers bought farmland in then-rural Queens. The borough now has the greatest concentration of memorial parks in New York City.

An intriguing, yet not surprising, phenomenon I stumbled upon in my ramblings through cemeteries in Queens is the existence of “neighborhoods of the dead.” Since people often choose to be buried near others from their respective communities, stones are clustered according to ethnic affiliation. In several Queens cemeteries, for example, there are Chinese, Latino and Greek sections. Neighborhoods can be apparent even within cemeteries dedicated to the members of a single religion.

One of the most dramatic representations of neighborhoods of the dead is in a Jewish cemetery in Queens called Mount Carmel. Bukharan Jews from Central Asia’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan began immigrating to New York in the 1990s, mostly settling in Queens. They brought with them virtuosic music and dance traditions as well as Soviet-style gravestone portraiture. In Mount Carmel, as in cemeteries in Uzbekistan, massive memorials of polished black granite bearing almost life-size etched portraits give the impression of a forest of people rather than a cluster of stones. Distinctly immigrant faces on some of the stones with women’s heads wrapped in scarves and men’s heads topped by astrakhans also lend to the effect.

Individual and group identities are also conveyed by location of burial. Military cemeteries and family plots are clear examples of group identity being maintained in death as it was in life. The biblical Joseph, who died in Egypt, requested burial in Canaan, his homeland. Like his father Jacob who had made the same request, he wanted to be buried with his family and among his people. Four hundred years later, the Children of Israel carried Joseph’s bones with them on their way to the Promised Land. Today, bodies of Jews are sometimes flown to Israel for burial in the Holy Land; Jews buried in the Diaspora traditionally have a bag of soil from the Land of Israel sprinkled in their coffins. Even placement of bodies in the cemetery can be tied to identity; traditionally, Jews are buried with their feet pointing east towards Jerusalem.

Sometimes, there is no burial site at all. The families of those who perished in the Holocaust do not know where the bodies of their loved ones lie. They have no place to visit their dead. Their situation provides a striking reminder about the importance of a gravesite both for the dead and for the living. My colleague Steve Zeitlin shared with me a story that Toby Blum-Dobkin told about her father. For Boris Blum, a name on a tombstone was not something to take for granted. His grandparents were killed in a pogrom in Ukraine. His parents perished in the Holocaust. A survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and the death camps of Maidenek, Buchenwald and Dachau, Boris had witnessed piles of corpses taken to the crematoria and burned. If he were given a funeral and a tombstone Boris would be the first member of his family in three generations to have them. As he put it, it would be, “like being published.” When Blum died suddenly of a heart attack, his family worked hard designing the tombstone that meant so much to him, inscribing it not only with dates of his birth and death but the date of his liberation from the camps. On it they also placed a memorial to all family members who had been killed and who had no tombstone. At the top of the tombstone are words taken from the Talmud, recounting the death of a martyred sage, which also are appropriate for a printer and a printer’s son: “The scrolls burn, but the letters rise.”

Ilana Harlow is a folklorist who has done fieldwork on traditional narrative in Ireland and on traditional arts in Queens. With Steve Zeitlin she is co-author of “Giving a Voice to Sorrow: Personal Responses to Death and Mourning” (Perigee, 2001). She also has held the position of sr. folklife specialist at the Library of Congress.