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Jewish Journal

The Visit

by Marlene Adler Marks

May 18, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Much has changed at Mount Sinai since the last time we visited my husband's grave. A new road has been paved. Another hillside is being cleared. Whether this is progress or not, it is a sign of time's passage and brings with it a pleasant sense of ease.

Yes, I find it easy to be there now. The pine tree, little more than a sapling when Burt wasburied, has nearly doubled in height, and a cool afternoon shadow falls over the headstone, bringing an early afternoon breeze.I take a look around. On a spring Sunday, there are bouquets of red roses and yellow-and-white mums everywhere, even though Jews don't leave flowers. And few if any rocks are evident, a sign of altering customs.

Closing in on the gravesite, I see to the left David E. Kleinberg -- Beloved by All, still there,alone. I think of my Burt and David as two old bachelors. I wonder if he had practiced law, and did he play bridge?

To the right, however, I can see the guys have new neighbors. Much of the Wallach familyhas been laid to rest since the last time I was there: five of them, including grandparentsSol and Mary. The most recent, Uncle Martin, was buried in 1995. Strangers to me, but now, oddly, friends.

I feel friendly toward the Wallachs and to the couple further down the hill, whose heirs brought their aunt an honest-to-goodness chocolate Tastykake in its clear-plastic and blue wrapper, and their uncle his beloved cigar.

"Whatever," says Samantha, observing the leavings. We can laugh now, 13 years later. We enjoy it all, how weird we mortals are. Captives on the carousel of time, as Joni Mitchell sang. How unique and yet the same are we the living, round and round in the circle game.

My mother visits her sister's grave annually. I've wanted nothing to do with that. Morbid, I thought. I hated cemeteries. I hated death. I hated the quiet, the stillness, the fury and the ceaseless tears that accompanied thoughts of the past. Burt's yahrtzeit would come and go,and I would visit only if my daughter Samantha insisted. Over time, Samantha stopped asking, and Iwas glad; it was a sign of healing.

But if it was a healing for her, not to be obsessed with the grave, to be more in touch with life than death, what about me? The quiet, the stillness, the fury and the tears are onlypart of what awaits us all, only part of what it means to live. There's joy too, eventually. And peace.

Peace with final judgment. Peace with one's own portion. And to make peace, it helps to have a place.When I was a child, we would drive past the Jewish cemetery in Queens on the way to the city. Overcrowded, it was an eyesore in the middle of the freeways."What a waste of good land," I would mutter to myself. None of that for me. I would be cremated.

There must have been many girls and boys like me. Cremation has certainly caught on. It's cheaper, for one thing, than burial. And it plays into the popular Buddhist idea that death is a transformation from body to spirit. In my community, baby boomers are strugglingwith the question of how to honor their parents, who, wanting not to be a bother, ask to have their ashes scattered to the winds.

Their parents' death is a rehearsal. They're asking themselves, what kind of burial for me?I'm not arguing here against cremation. No point in that. Jewish custom is already adapting to fit our times. The tradition argues a harsh and deliberate no. I read recently that a person who asks to be cremated is not even entitled to a week's mourning through shiva. But many Jews have moved quickly and are well beyond that. Some synagogues, recognizing the numbers of Jews who fear death and the cemeteries that remind us of it, are allowing cremation in the synagogue "memorial garden" with fitting ritual to match.As a result, the mortuary business is responding. Just as they'll provide you with flower vases even though Jews are supposed to leave rocks, they're ready to accommodate you and make suitable cremation arrangements, usually involving a vault or a plaque

And this is my point. Your loved ones may want to be no bother, but you, the living,need to be bothered. To be bothered is to be mortal; to be fully living you must honor the dead.The pine tree doubled in size between my visits. The dead grew in number while I stayed away.No matter. One day when the bitterness was over, I was ready. No different from all those who came before me, with their rocks and flowers and Tastykake and cigars, I returned. And the marker was there.

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