If you’ve followed my earlier posts you will be aware of how my sister and I cared for our mother as she gradually declined and succumbed to COPD and vascular dementia. The lady who had insisted for years that she wanted to be cremated, had a change of heart in her final months and decided that she wanted a traditional Jewish burial when her time came to join her ancestors.
As Jews we followed the demands of a funeral as soon as possible after death. We sat Shiva, (the Jewish practice of mourning the passing of a close relative in a family home, whilst friends and family visit to pay their condolences, and a Rabbi attends to lead prayers in the evening), although only for one night and not the customary seven.
We also carried out the practice of erecting a headstone over our mum’s grave, but not until at least nine or ten months had passed. This is so the ground has a chance to settle. We gave the tombstone a great deal of thought, finally deciding on a colour that we thought mum would have liked, and choosing one that was not too high as she herself never grew beyond 4 feet eleven inches. In addition we took a great deal of care over the wording on, and the design of, the memorial monument. Apart from the traditional Hebrew lettering, we chose the epithet, in English, ‘To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die’. This has rung true more and more over the last year or so.
Mum is often in my thoughts and it’s hard to stop myself short when something happens and I would love to pick up the phone and tell her about it. She used to say the same thing to me in respect of her own mother.
My cousin recently reminded me that it was 45 years since her father, my uncle and mum’s brother, died. Returning to the Jewish religion, we mark the annual anniversary of the passing of loved ones, but we commemorate the date according to the Hebrew calendar. This is known in Yiddish as the Yahrzeit, literally the season. When the date comes round we light a memorial candle on the evening before the actual day (Jewish days begin at sunset the previous evening) and this candle burns for 24 hours. My uncle’s candle has now finished burning. I also asked the Rabbi to read out his name during the Shabbat service on Saturday morning, which is done on the closest Saturday to the Yahrzeit.
My awareness has now been brought to the death of my own father 34 years ago, the date of which will be commemorated at the end of this month. Once again his name will be read out before we recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead that is chanted both at funerals and Saturday morning and festival services, as well as on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), that most sacred of the High Holy Days, a time spent repenting and fasting. Included in the service is a portion known as Yizkor (a Hebrew word meaning ‘remember’). When I was a child my mother used to send me out of the Sanctuary for this section of the prayers as my parents were still alive. Now that they are no longer with me, I remain, remember them, and grieve for what I have lost.
My own Liberal Jewish congregation also offers an alternative ‘spiritual and meditative experience’ to the Yizkor prayers on Yom Kippur. This is a much more intimate and inclusive occasion, and one which brought back the memories of mum’s death with deep poignancy when I took part last year for the first time since she had left us. Perhaps I should also mention that the Hebrew date of mum’s passing was on Kol Nidrei, the evening that commences before Yom Kippur, but which signals that the Day of Atonement has begun. So not only do I remember my mother at that holiest time of the Jewish calendar, I can never forget that was when she died too.
Therefore Judaism provides reminders of those who have passed, but who remain forever in our hearts.