The Threads that Bind Us

Our family gathered in Groton, Connecticut for a wedding this past weekend. We converged on the Mystic Hilton, coming from upstate New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia and California. On Friday as we were each on our way, my brothers and I received a text from our aunt reporting that she and my uncle ‘made a stop to tell our loved ones the good news about our trip,’ meaning they visited the cemetery in Saddle Brook, NJ where my father, uncle and Nana (among other family members) are buried and shared the happy news of the upcoming nuptials. She included several pictures of the graves. I appreciated that they had done that, as irrational as the gesture may be.

I don’t believe that going to my father’s gravesite puts me closer to his spirit, but at the same time visiting is a demonstrable show of respect. In the Jewish tradition, when you visit the grave, you leave a small rock or pebble on the headstone as a tangible sign that someone was there – at least that’s the reason I have in my head and heart when I do it (there is likely some obscure reason for the ritual that dates back to ancient time, but I have no knowledge of it). I was glad that my aunt and uncle did it on our behalf. When we gather for these milestone events, it is bittersweet. We are thankful that we have something so special to celebrate, but also painfully aware of those who are no longer with us.

While chatting with one of my cousins, I mentioned that my aunt and uncle had done this, and she explained that for her going to the cemetery was an empty experience. Her mother died 35 years ago, and she still feels her mom’s spirit with her all the time, she is in regular communication with her (just to be clear, she didn’t mean that literally) but she doesn’t feel anything at her gravesite. I know other people feel the same way and have no need to go. My cousin wasn’t casting judgment on those who find meaning in a visit, but it just doesn’t do anything for her. On the other hand, I have a friend who visits her parents’ graves regularly – she finds it comforting. I’m trying to decide how I feel about it – not just with respect to loved ones who have died, but also in terms of what I want for myself.

This isn’t a subject most people want to talk about – all topics revolving around death tend to make people uncomfortable. I have always found it interesting and, more than that, important. I want to sort out my conflicting emotions, in part to plan for it so my children aren’t left with painful decisions when the time comes.

I have a recollection of an irreverent George Carlin comedy routine where he lamented that cemeteries were a waste of space. He suggested the land could be better used for affordable housing! (He was equally merciless about golf courses). Seriously, it is reasonable to ask whether our burial practices make sense from a use of resources and an ecological point of view. Is it sustainable?

Some of our feelings about this are probably the product of the traditions, either religious or cultural, we observed growing up. In my mother’s family, when she was a child, they went to the cemetery at least annually to pay their respects. She even remembers picnicking there! For her those were warm memories. The departed were still included in their lives. Though that tradition was not continued in my childhood, we never picnicked, I was aware that Mom and her brothers went at least yearly to the cemetery. As an adult, after my dad died, I took Mom to the cemetery a few times. Dad is buried in Mom’s (the Spilkens’) family plot, he lies near his mother-in-law. In life he loved being part of their family, it seems appropriate that he rests there. There is a spot for Mom, when the time comes, next to Dad.

The photo my aunt, Barbara Spilken, sent

Cremation was not considered when Dad died. It is my understanding that cremation was frowned upon among Jews. That attitude seems to be changing, and apparently was not rooted in agreed upon Jewish law. More Jews are choosing that option these days. Then you have to decide what to do with the cremains – scatter, bury/place in a mausoleum or keep in an urn somewhere. For other Jews, like my husband, irrespective of tradition or law, the legacy of the Holocaust makes this an unacceptable option.

On our drive back home from the wedding I asked Gary what he thought about all of this, including whether it was meaningful to visit the cemetery. He finds comfort in the idea of leaving a marker behind. He also expressed a desire to go to visit his dad, who is buried in Liberty, about a 2 hour drive from our home. Regardless of whether we go regularly, or not, Gary believes it is fitting that his dad’s existence has a marker, a place and a stone that memorializes his life that will be there for decades, maybe centuries, to come. He wants that for himself, too. Gary noted that he had not visited deceased family, he was thinking especially of his Bubbe, who are buried on Long Island in many, many years. He would like to, but couldn’t see making a separate trip, it is long and inconvenient, only for that purpose. If we were traveling in the area, then he would make a point of going. The location of the cemetery is obviously a factor in the frequency of visits.

Though I can’t articulate my reasons, it is important to me that I visit Dad’s grave once in a while – I can’t say how often it should be, though annually feels about right. I think of my dad all the time of course, but there is something about the visit to the site that formalizes it. Time and effort are carved out to honor my relationship with him by being there, looking at the inscription on the stone and placing a pebble on it to signify my presence. I am glad I can pay my respects to Nana and Uncle Mike at the same time.

I am of two minds for myself. I like the idea of being scattered in the wind, in a particularly lovely spot. I also see the appeal of leaving a marker, even if my children and grandchildren don’t visit. There would be a place where my existence was noted. I suppose the two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps that is the answer I’ve been looking for – my cremains strewn about a lovely spot, (could they fertilize a garden?), and a memorial marker somewhere (a bench in Central Park?). Maybe I’m on to something here.

Do you visit loved ones at the cemetery? Does it feel meaningful? What do you want for yourself?

It is ironic that this piece started with the family gathering for a wedding but explored our recognition of death, but that is the nature of life. We gather for these events. The judge who officiated the ceremony, and it was a beautiful one, began with “Dearly beloved….,” just a word away from “Dearly departed…” It is all of a thread.

7 thoughts on “The Threads that Bind Us

  1. I definitely find comfort visiting my family at the cemetery. It is truly a way of honoring them. I think, it makes me feel better to share the news of the family with these departed members. When the Jews lives in the desert, they were concerned about the sand blowing over burial sites. The tradition started by leaving stones to protect the area from being covered with the sand. We now leave stones as a remembrance but that is how the tradition started. It was such a wonderful weekend to be with the family and it started by seeing the ones who couldn’t attend.

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    1. First, Uncle T, thank you for doing it, Second, thank you for your explanation. Makes sense. I’m glad the visits brings you comfort – we all need it especially in the face of the loss of people we loved so much.

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  2. Oh Linda, this is just as complicated in my mind! When I was younger and less experienced in loss, I was firmly in the “cremation/cemeteries are a waste with an exploding population” camp.
    I recently traveled home to Colden, and was compelled to go to the cemetery where my parents have a headstone. My mom is buried there, but a few of dad’s ashes are as well. I don’t visit there every time I’m in town, though. Now, I think about my parents in some way daily, and when I am faced with a task in which they had expertise, I ask their help half jokingly. Faced with that headstone, their dear names, I poured out my recent grief; telling them the things I feel that I can say to no one else. I’m not sure why that was a trigger in the way it was. They got an earful though! After a time, I wandered the little hometown cemetery and found the graves of generations of my family; greats, great-greats and felt this incredible peace and the thread of connection and belonging. It was comforting and I know they all live in their molecular way in my children and grandchildren.
    That said, the part that seems to wound me is that my brother has no stone, nor will Meagan- and she leaves no children. Sometimes I want to scream to the heavens that she was here! She mattered! It hurts me to think of her as occasional thoughts. I think that’s why we inter and carve granite. They were here. They added something to this world. They had a story, whether brief or long, or like a tiny pebble in a pond, or a hurricane over the ocean, their very life changed things in some way and those that knew them want to remember.
    The change in the world since the time we were connected as families and lived in hometowns seems to have severed something precious, and the loneliness and depression in so many young people gives me pause when I look at the importance of family and roots and honoring one another.

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    1. Beautifully said, Georgie. I understand what you are saying. We want our lives, and those of our loved ones, to matter and to acknowledge that in some permanent way, even if that is folly (even gravestones erode over time). It is complicated. Thank you for sharing your experience. More to think about.

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  3. I don’t visit. I know many find it awful for a Jew, but I want to be cremated and have my ashes spread on a favorite hiking trail. Probably illegal LOL, but whatever.

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    1. I make no judgment – it is a personal decision. Based on the bit of research I did for Aunt Clair, at least in NYC, there are a lot of options for spreading ashes, not as restrictive as you might think. More of an issue in bodies of water – then you need permission. Not sure what that means in other states, but for what it’s worth, I was surprised that remains can be spread in public parks.

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  4. I think of the Holocaust memorial in Israel-Yad Vashem. The Hebrew expression means “a memorial and a name.” The nazis wished to wipe out any memory of the existence of the Jewish people-as if we never were. They wished to take away our names and leave us no memorial. Yad Vashem documents those lives and gives the victims back their name; gives them a memorial.
    I refuse to accept that our existence leaves no record, no impact. Perhaps I am just agreeing with Georgie. I just think everyone deserves to have a name and a memorial. They mattered to someone. I also do not judge others who feel differently. But this is meaningful to me.
    thank you.

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