Cemeteries. Every city has one. They are mysterious, historic, haunting and, to me, fascinating. I developed a fondness for cemeteries as a boy.
Now whenever I’m out of town, I always make it a point to visit a cemetery. To me, they are better than any mountain range, skyline or other popular tourist attraction. They are hidden treasures containing a wealth of information about communities and the people who lived there.
Chances are you have visited a cemetery at some time in your life to pay your respects to a family member or friend, and perhaps you too appreciate the stories represented among the tombstones and monuments.
My travels take me to all over the South and Midwest, so I have decided to start documenting my cemetery visits with a series of photos in a new Sunday feature.
This week’s cemetery is Beth Sholom Memorial Gardens in Memphis, TN.
The visit marked my first to a Jewish cemetery, so I really didn’t know what to expect. Over the years I’ve heard varying information about Jewish cemetery customs. Were any of them true? I hoped to find out.
As it turned out, my first obstacle had nothing to do with customs but rather how to gain access into the cemetery, which was protected by an electronic security gate. After a quick call to the office at Beth Sholom Synagogue, I obtained a passcode and began my journey.
Unlike most cemeteries, Beth Sholom did not allow traditional headstones. Instead, markers were used. According to familysearch.org, different Jewish groups have different traditions about gravestones. Ashkenazic Jews have vertical gravestones while Sephardic Jews have horizontal ones. Both groups however make frequent use of classic Jewish symbols, such as the star of David, the Book of Life or a candle.
Another unusual Jewish tradition is leaving a small stone at the gravesite. According to jcam.org, the custom began long ago when the dead were wrapped in a burial shroud rather than being placed in a casket. Each time family members would go back to the gravesite, they’d continue to place stones on the site, ensuring its security while at the same time building up the memory of the loved one. Nowadays leaving a small stone has become a symbolic gesture, sort of a way of letting the loved one know, I remember you.
Many Jewish authorities forbid flowers to be left at a grave which is why you rarely see them in traditional Jewish cemeteries. I think the book “Wrestling with the Angel: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning” says it best:
Memory is supposed to be lasting. While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of life, stones seem better suited to the permanence of memory. Stones do not die.
Other interesting tidbits I learned about Jewish cemeteries and customs include:
- Gravestone inscriptions should include the name of the deceased, death date and name of father.
- Jewish gravestones are usually inscribed in Hebrew. The info may be duplicated on the stones in English or in the language of the country where the deceased is buried.
- Judaism teaches that mourners should not show excessive grief and cemetery visitation should not be too frequent.
- When someone attends a burial, visiting the graves of others is a no-no, unless you’ve traveled from far away.
- Jews are allowed to be organ donors.
- Jewish law forbids cremation.
- Judaism considers suicide a form of murder. Therefore, Jews who take their own life will receive no eulogies nor can they be buried in the main section of the cemetery.
- Jewish law forbids tattoos. However, that doesn’t prevent Jews from being buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Until next time….