December 11, 2009
Traditional Jewish memorials
Headstones can be a unique way to eternally honor loved ones.
My brothers and I recently purchased and dedicated a headstone for our father's grave at Schara Tzedeck Cemetery. While the act of choosing a headstone, especially with the advice of a rabbi, is fairly straightforward, we had to find a suitable match to our mother's marker, which my father designed after she passed away 11 years ago.
My father decided to add a few unique features that are not very common on Jewish headstones, especially locally. Then, a few years ago, he wrote out a verse that he asked us to inscribe on his own marker when his time came.
My father was not a religious man in the traditional sense, but he strongly identified with the Jewish community and Israel. His main devotion was to my mother to whom he was married for 50 years.
If you've purchased a headstone for a loved one, or spent time walking through a Jewish cemetery, you will see many similarities between local headstones and those in Europe, Israel or, pretty much, anywhere in the world.
At the top of most Jewish headstones are the Hebrew letters Peh and Nun which stand for Po Nikbar (Here Lies).
Usually, the person's name is inscribed in Hebrew. Traditionally, the name of the father of the deceased follows the deceased's first name, for example, Chaim ben Avraham (Chaim, son of Abraham).
The date of death according to the Hebrew calendar is inscribed as well, preceded by the Hebrew word for died, niftar for a male and niftarah for a female.
These inscriptions are instrumental as genealogical markers and can be important evidence to those who wish to know more about their ancestors.
Headstones often include the given English name and surname, date of birth and passing and perhaps a descriptive phrase reflecting on the person's devotion to family, community or a cause.
Also commonly inscribed are the Hebrew letters Taf, Nun, Tzaddi, Bet and Heh, which form an abbreviation for the phrase, "May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life."
Some symbols may be more specific to a certain geographical area. In Russia, for example, it is common to put a picture of the deceased on the stone. I have visited Jewish cemeteries in Curaçao and Barbados in the Caribbean, where the headstone often says a lot about the life and death of the person. A tree truncated at its root symbolizes an untimely death or a ship in stormy water indicates the victim perished at sea. One gravestone I saw, of a woman who died giving birth, has an engraving of a father handing over the newborn child to another woman, before an image of the dead mother. There are also headstones with the skull and crossbones symbols recognizing some of the Jewish pirates who sailed the Caribbean.
A common symbol that is seen locally is two hands with four fingers divided into two sets of fingers, the symbol of a priestly blessing, signifying the headstone of a Cohen. A Levite may be recognized by the symbol of a water pitcher, as they were responsible for washing the hands of the Temple priest in ancient times. A candelabra is often used on the headstone of a woman and a Star of David on that of a man.
In 1998, my father went to Vancouver's J.B. Newall Monuments, who manufacture the headstones for the local Jewish community, to choose a marker for my mother. It includes her Hebrew name and date of passing but he then chose to personalize it. He had them inscribe the phrase, "As I was saying..." on the front of the stone and added a small cartoon that she used to draw, which included her initial R for "Rezelle."
Apparently, my mother was very insistent on completing a thought and, if interrupted by the person to whom she was speaking, she would wait and finish her thought, preceded by the words, "As I was saying..."
My father also added a more traditional inscription: "A loving partner, mother, baba, loved by all who knew her."
My father passed away last year. This July, after months of deliberation, and with the permission of Rev. Joseph Marciano (who manages the cemetery), we designed and dedicated a unique headstone for our father.
As per tradition, we included his Hebrew name and the date of his passing according to the Hebrew calendar. Then, following his English name and dates of birth and death, is the verse he requested – "Cycle complete, together again in a basement suite."
You see, my father was very sentimental and he remembered that when he and my mother married in 1948, all they could afford was a suite in the basement of Edmonton's Pakes family. They still lived there when I was born 18 months later. So it was important to him that, just as he started life together with my mother below ground level, they now lie together, again, in a "basement suite."
Our final decision was what to inscribe as a dedication. We know that my father was also a loving husband, father and zaida, but we felt that it just didn't fit in with the rest of the stone.
Frank, Allan and I decided we wanted him to be remembered for his final career, one that came out of the years of running bingos at the Vancouver Jewish Community Centre in the 1970s and 1980s. Before the JCC expanded to its present size, and before the sports dinners, gala fundraisers and foundation grants, there was a serious deficit that threatened its survival. The major source of income outside of membership fees was the weekly bingo that my parents ran every Sunday night. Our parents were never in a position to contribute large monetary sums to Jewish charities but, for many years, played instrumental roles in fundraising activities at the community centre.
The JCC bingo was one of the largest in the area and my father became well known to bingo product suppliers. Soon, he found himself enjoying what should have been his retirement years, driving to churches and community halls throughout the Lower Mainland delivering cards, daubers and other bingo supplies until, ultimately, casinos became the main source of charitable revenue. So, we hope future generations will be reminded of his work on behalf of our community and others by the word "Bingo!" on the front of his stone.
A search of the Internet, on sites like sleepycreek.org, will give examples of unusual and sometimes humorous inscriptions. My favorite is the one I saw at a cemetery in Key West, Fla. It reads, "I told you I was sick."
I hope my parents' memorials will cause a few people to stop and ponder over the coming years. One of the traditional names for a Jewish cemetery is Beit Chaim – House of Life – signifying a place where the dead have eternal rest. But, I believe, it is also a place for the living to visit, to remember and to learn.
Neil Loomer is the former editor and publisher of Edmonton Jewish Life. He now lives in North Vancouver. A version of this article appeared in the Har El newsletter.