The God Squad: Burial vs. cremation continued
Q: In your recent analysis of burial vs. cremation, you wrote that it has become less common for relatives to visit the graves of their loved ones. What a shame! I always have felt that I was doing the respectful thing when I visited my grandparents’ graves. As a child, I knew how important it was to my parents that we visit their parents’ graves. While “enjoyed” is too happy a word for the experience, there was a deep satisfaction in connecting in that way with those whom I’d never met.
Similarly, the custom of sending condolence cards and letters seems to have diminished greatly. In 1967, when my father died suddenly, we received dozens of cards, letters, and charitable donation notes – all of which I have to this day. I can read the heartfelt sentiments and feel the depth of the love and care that was being sent to my mother, sister and me. Compare that to a quickie post or comment of condolence on social media, accompanied by a crying or hugging emoji. There is no comparison. The impermanence in the face of the permanence of death is almost insulting.
To me, taking the time to write and send a condolence card to one who mourns is a simple but powerful sign of respect and love – and a basic requirement of human connection. I cannot understand why the practice has fallen by the wayside. -- From M
A: I agree with you completely, dear M. Your compassion shines through your words. I do not want to revisit our recent debate on in-ground burial versus cremation which sadly degenerated into an argument about which one was cheaper (cremation). You raise a point that transcends cost. It is the obligation to faithful remembrance. Of course, this can be done after a cremation but the opportunity presented by a cemetery for quiet and personal touching and reflection is so spiritually powerful I am bewildered as you are as to why people do not want to be a part of this loving act of visiting the grave.
These days are the days of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, and 10 days later the Day of Repentance (Yom Kippur) and one of the most observed and cherished rituals of this time of the year for Jews was visiting the graves of relatives who had passed into the World To Come. The custom involved leaving a small stone on the headstone to mark one’s visitation. Then the custom was to gather for a meal and drink and eat something sweet as an act of remembrance that life with all its losses and burdens is still a sweet gift from God and family gatherings even for sad remembrances are still the glue that holds us together. The message of the stone and the pebble on the stone is wordless but it shouts out its meaning to all the other visitors of the cemetery, “This family has made the effort to visit this place and to remember this people.” Whenever I visited a cemetery, which in my work was quite often, I would always try to visit a stranger’s headstone and leave a pebble behind. Perhaps I was trying to leave my own silent cry, “This family has not been here recently to visit but a stranger was here and today that will have to be enough.”
Your observations and sadness about the demise of condolence cards is another particularly poignant critique of our spiritually bereft culture. Obviously the culprit here is the smartphone which has put us in contact with everyone and everything in the world. However, being put in contact is not the same thing as being put in touch. The decline in the ability to write cursive script and the expense of stationery and postage have also contributed to popularizing the easy but thin way of communicating with others.
I would add to your list of regrets the decline in the number of thank you notes sent out for gifts and kindnesses received. There is something wonderful in opening a letter and seeing a person’s handwriting and most of all in knowing that the effort it took to say thanks is in some measure commensurate with the gift or the good deed. I encourage parents and grandparents often to go out and buy their children and grandchildren personal stationary so that they can write the condolence cards and thank you notes that keep us a civilized culture and that restore our belief that our lives are shared by others who love us and are here for us in sickness and in health, in sadness and in joy, in life and in death.
Dear M, please send me your address and I will write you a thank you note.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)
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