Alav hashalom

I found myself wandering around an old cemetery today on my lunch hour. I had gone intending to take some photos of Old Tennent Church, founded in 1692 and used as a temporary field hospital during the Revolutionary War. Instead I wandered around looking at the gravestones, many of which are from the 1700’s. The church building was closed, but some of the pews are said to be scarred from the surgeon’s saws and the blood of soldiers who died here during the Battle of Monmouth and are buried in the churchyard. There are two huge old oak trees that frame the entrance to the church, set on a hill.

It felt strange to be taking photos of gravestones, but many of them are interesting. The oldest are so simple and different in their sentiments on death compared to the laser-carved ones that are seen in the modern part of the cemetery. The modern versions seem to be more about comfort and a sense of prestige for the living, rather than a memorial for the deceased. The oldest tombstones are frightening in the images they depict and the warnings they contain to passerby. A popular epitaph from the 18th century reads, “Behold and see as you pass by, as you are now so once was I, as I am now so must you be, Prepare for death and follow me.”

This curiosity about gravestones and cemeteries comes in part from thinking about them the past few days. I’m wondering what role they play in the mourning process for the people left behind. My closest friend, who lost her dad in the last year, had the *unveiling* ceremony for her dad’s monument this past weekend. It’s the custom in the Jewish religion to hold this ceremony close to the one year anniversary of a person’s death. I guess it’s supposed to be one of the last steps on the path of grief for her. I’ve tried to be with her as she learns her way without her dad beside her. I’ve tried to give her the chance to talk often of her dad and share her grief with someone who understands it, but it’s been hard to see her suffering the most personal loss of her life and not be able to do more than listen.

I hope that she’ll continue to find strength in the practice of her faith and in her family. I know how difficult it must have been for her to see her father’s name insribed on the gravestone. Perhaps the finality of that sight is the reason for the Jewish custom and the delay in seeing the monument. Maybe soon she’ll find a way to see beyond his death, to the impact of his life and his love, and she’ll come to understand that his values and ideals continue in her.

11 thoughts on “Alav hashalom”

  1. I just love old cemeteries. When I go to New England, I always make a point of visiting a few– an easy thing to do, since they’re on just about every street corner.

    Peace to your friend.

  2. This is an interesting and moving post.

    Many aspects of Jewish traditions for death, burial and grieving have made sense to me. There is no viewing of the body. The dead should be buried immediately. There is no embalming. The casket and headstone are very plain. The family helps fill the grave. During the ‘shiva’ period, the community visits and comforts the mourners. People visiting a grave often leave a small stone on the headstone to mark the moment.

  3. I love them, too. There’s one near Mom’s house that has a stone dating back to 1800. Cemetaries are so peaceful. And what a nice note for your friend. Jewish traditions are so interesting, colorful, full of meaning.

  4. Bunnygirl: Thanks for the peaceful wishes for my friend – I think Deb would appreciate them.

    My brother took a photography course in college and made lots of photos of old gravestones – I thought it was very strange at the time, but after spending just a little today – I see what interested him so much. The quiet in a cemetery is nice, also.

    Mojoman: They make a lot of sense to me also. A very pragmatic view of death, I think.

    I can remember as a kid going to visit and sit shiva with a friend or two who lost a parent and being very impressed with it. A lot of rituals – wearing the black ribbons, covering the mirrors, sitting on low seats, etc – but ultimately it seemed most to be about a family drawing close to remember and grieve together, rather than putting on a face of strength for others as we christians seem to want to do. Then we go home and are left alone to face the loss.

    The funeral for Deb’s dad was the first that I had been to – that helping to fill the grave really got to me – but I think I can see how the rituals help to guide the process of grief.

    Susan: Yep, this was mostly a note to her. I didn’t think I should go to the ceremony this weekend, but wanted to let her know that I was thinking of her.

  5. The way most of us deal with death, all the embalming and chilling and viewing, etc., it all seems overly stilted. I like what you’ve described.

  6. I have found that time really does help. I hope your friend is doing as well as possible. On another note, I am fascinated by old cemeteries like the one you describe. I happen to work right across the street from an ancient burial ground that contains graves of Bostonians from the 18th century. In the good weather, t’s a great place to have lunch.

  7. I love old graveyards. Not being from here, I don’t have family in New England, but I have trudged through many a yard with my friends from here. I too, love the writing on the stones. Maybe I will post some of my photos in the future.

  8. Laura, that’s a long grieving process and much time to wait for a closure. Your friend is fortunate to have your understanding and support during a hard time. Very nice post.

    I like the peacefulness of cemetaries, too, nothing there to clutter your mind.

  9. hi everyone. i am laura’s friend deb. as you all know by now about laura, she one of the most thoughtful, kind, peaceful people you could ever. so caring a very good listener. one of my only friends who understands. yes i do appreciate laura’s friendship, probably more than she knows. i am jewish and throughout my fathers illness and then death, as some people would say “i have found g-d”. its all a learning process to me, but i guess life is just that way. laura thanks for the post, it was beautiful. it made me cry.

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