Tag Archives: cemetery

Missing Mentors

A double entendre.  Missing as in they are gone, and also missing as in missing them, feeling their absence in our hearts.  There is something about the holiday season that deepens both meanings.  Maybe because it is a family oriented time, a time we shared with them.  Maybe it is because of the memories of holidays gone by, of sitting with a loved one at the table, or in shul.  Maybe it is because so many of the holiday’s themes are tied to loss, mortality, the fragility of life.  But that sense of absence is keenly experienced when the nights become cool and the leaves begin to fall.

I have a private ritual I enact every year a week or two before the holidays.  I make sure to get to our synagogue’s cemetery to visit the graves of the clergy who served Beth El over the years.  I visit the grave of Rabbi Jacob Agus, whom I never met, but whose presence is felt in the halls of the synagogue every day as a source of guidance and wisdom.  I linger at the tombstone of Cantor Saul Hammerman, a golden voiced Hazzan with an old world sense of humor and a deep love of the Jewish people, with whom I was lucky to share many a conversation.  And always last I visit the grave of  Rabbi Mark Loeb, my senior rabbi for more than a decade, and a true mentor and friend to me and to many others.

It is at the last grave where I crouch down, where I brush my hands over the metal letters, where I again read the words that I’ve read hundreds of times.  What I wish I could share!  What I wish I could ask!  The void can be sensed, almost palpably, but it cannot be breached.  And yet.  There is meaning in the visit.  A sacred sense, an honoring of presence, an affirmation that the connection still exists in some mysterious and inexplicable way.  And in that there is comfort and strength.  And purpose.  What  I do I do not do alone.  Where I go, others go with me.  And in that sense of permanent presence I find blessing and grace, courage and hope, laughter and longing, sadness and celebration.  I find life.  And a new year begins.



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Where Worlds Touch

a text version of remarks I made at the annual congregational memorial service this past Sunday –

I’ve been asked many times over the years by people, generally with a sense of embarrassment, if I think it is strange that they continue to talk with someone who is dead.  They often describe what they mean to me – it might be a regular trip to the cemetery, or perhaps when they come to shul and touch a person’s memorial plaque, or sometimes each evening before they go to bed.  Some people tell me they spend at least part of every day talking with someone who no longer walks in this world.  What they talk about is generally simple – sometimes they might tell the person they’ve lost that they miss them.  Other times, commonly, they give the person updates on the family, on friends, on important events, this grandchild has graduated, whatever it might be.  They share hopes, and dreams, they express their worries and their fears.

I always ask the person who reports this experience to me if it is comforting to them, and almost without exception they tell me that it is.  It is an assurance to them that the person they’ve lost is still a part of their lives, still present in a way, still connected to them and to their family.  Those conversations with the dead can help people get through a day, or a difficult moment of their lives.  They can help them get ready for a big moment, a wedding or a graduation or a bar or bat mitzvah, when they particularly wish the person they’ve lost could be there with them.

I mentioned a moment ago that when people tell me about these conversations they often seem embarrassed, as if there might be something wrong with what they are about to share with me, as if it is a secret that they don’t want others to know about, I suppose because they are worried people will think it strange.  But I tell them that my sense is that nearly everyone has these conversations, in one form or another.  Some people literally speak out loud when they stand by a grave, and laugh and cry, as if the person is right there, in the very same physical space.  Others have the conversations in their minds, quietly, and for others the conversation does not happen through words, but rather through a feeling, a sudden sentiment or thought that floods into their being.  But for almost everyone who has lost a person that they have shared life with, walked with, lived with, loved, for almost everyone, the conversation continues.

And often, the conversation continues here, in the cemetery.  In the course of a given year I will walk into a cemetery well over a hundred times.  For the burial service of a funeral I am conducting, or to officiate at an unveiling.  And virtually every time I enter a cemetery there is someone else there.  They sit by a grave, they bring flowers, they gently place stones on the markers of people they love.  Some spend only a few minutes, while others brings chairs and will spend an hour or even part of a day.  The cemetery is a place where worlds touch, where our world of flesh and blood and trees and grass and wind and sky can somehow touch the world to come, a place of memory and spirit and rest and peace.  And when the worlds touch our hopes and dreams, our worries and fears, our thoughts – and yes, even our words – can somehow find a way to the other side.

And if the cemetery is a place where the worlds touch, the Yom Tov season is a time when they touch.  When memory is shaper, more distinct.  When the sense of loss is stronger, knowing that another year has gone by.  When the determination to live our lives in such a way that we honor the memories of those we remember today is most in our minds – let the words of our tradition guide us as we remember, and let us begin again the conversations that never end –


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A Beautiful Cemetery

An oxymoron?  I don’t think so.  I spend a fair amount of time in cemeteries, and the simple truth is some are beautiful, some not so much.  It has to do with how they are cared for, whether or not the congregation they belong to is active and vital, whether people visit regularly.  A quiet moment in the cemetery, with the sun shining, and a breeze gently blowing, surrounded by the sense of presence, history, life, loss, memory – that is a sacred moment.

I was privileged to witness one such moment a few days ago.  I arrived at the cemetery with our Cantor, and together we waited for a funeral procession to arrive for the burial service.  A young (middle aged? – what is young anymore?) man was sitting in the grass by a gravestone, barefoot, in shorts, with the sun shining down, his hand lightly resting on the stone by his side.  He sat there for a time, in a space between this world and the next.  He softly spoke, and perhaps also listened.  A reverie of past and present, of absence and presence.

We approached him to let him know the funeral procession would soon arrive.  The burial was near the stone he was visiting.  He shook his head, as if coming out of a dream, stepping back into the concrete reality of our world and this moment.  His mother, now gone ten years.  He smiled in the sunshine remembering life and not loss, laughter and blessing and the grace of connections that can never be severed.

We exchanged a few words before he climbed into his car and drove away.  He carried with him a sense of peace, or perhaps equanimity is the better word.  Before long he will be back.

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4 Funerals, 1 Day

A couple of months I ago I posted a piece about a week where I officiated at seven funerals.  Last week, in one day, on Friday, I officiated at four funerals.  The seven funeral week piece was more about emotionally how I navigated those days.  In this piece I want to address the question of logistics – how is it actually possible to officiate at four funerals in a single day?

First, two things must be said.  One, I’ve learned over time that the rabbinate in a large synagogue requires the art of appearing in multiple places at the same time.  I know this is not actually possible, but it is possible in a way – by leaving one place a few minutes early, arriving at another a few minutes late, skipping meals, using every possible second of the day, stacking appointments one after another after another.  It is not something I recommend, and the truth is when you are in multiple places at once you are not fully in anyplace, but sometimes it is what you have to do just because of the sheer volume of what you need to accomplish.  

The second thing is this:  if you are serving in a mega-shul, sometimes you just have to work on Shabbat and Yom Tov.  You just have to, like it or not, admit it or not.  The four funerals I had were on the Friday after Shavuot.  The holiday began on Tuesday evening, at which point only one of the four funerals was scheduled.  The calls about the other funerals came in on Wednesday morning and afternoon, and I think one Thursday morning.  Both Yom Tov days.  For each funeral a meeting with the family is required.  At each meeting notes must be taken.  Eulogies must be written.  It is not possible to wait until the end of the holiday, Thursday night (and late!  close to 9:30), before beginning these meetings.  

So here is how it went down.  I met with one family Wednesday afternoon.  Thursday after services I came home directly and wrote eulogy #1.  Then Thursday afternoon I began meeting with the other three families.  One at 4, one at 5:30, one at 7.  Straight through, one after the other.  I finished those meetings at about 9 at night, Thursday night.  As of Thursday night the four family meetings were completed, and one eulogy was written.  Tired out, one good beer, some reading, and bed.

Friday morning up early.  Eulogy #2 written between 7 and 8:30.  Now with two eulogies finished I went to the first funeral, a graveside at 9:30.  From there right to the funeral home for funeral #2, a chapel service that began at 11.  I was back at the synagogue at 1, with the next funeral scheduled to begin at 3, the last funeral at 5.  From 1 to 2:30 I wrote eulogy #3 and also wrote the short remarks I would make at funeral #4 (the family and friends would be delivering the main eulogies).  In a pinch (and a four funeral day qualifies as a pinch) I can write a eulogy in an hour or so.  

I printed out the last eulogies, arrived at the funeral home at 2:45, officiated at funeral #3, and from the cemetery drove right back to the funeral home for funeral #4.  After the burial service I arrived home at about 6:45.

Oh, and there was that issue of the sermon for Shabbat morning.  But that is a story for another day.



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