Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The gravestone

When I was in California a few weeks ago, I went with my father to the cemetery. (See my previous post at http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/08/visit-to-cemetery.html) In addition to visiting my mother's grave (can you really "visit" a grave?), we went to begin the process of choosing a design for  a gravestone. Right now my mother's body lies buried beneath a patch of grass. It is time that we ordered a stone to mark off that space. It would be especially appropriate for it to be "unveiled" in time for the Yahrtzeit.

The idea of choosing a gravestone is one I've been trying to avoid. Months ago my father sent me a brochure from the cemetery office that showed various styles. I added it to a pile of papers on my desk and tried to forget about it.

The process of choosing a gravestone seems absurd. Consider the following choices to be made: size (which basically breaks down to small, medium or large, priced accordingly), font style (e.g. Times, Helvetica), color of stone (over 20 available), direction stone is to be placed (horizontally or vertically), whether letters will be raised or engraved (the latter seems to be preferred these days), whether it will carry any symbols (menorah and Magen David seem to be the most popular), where symbols will be placed (usually on top), how dates of will be recorded (exact dates of birth and death or just years), how name will be recorded (just English, just Hebrew, both, and if in Hebrew, whether to include her mother's name), and whether to include any description of the deceased and/or biblical verses). (Price is $175 for the first four hebrew letters and $22.50 for each additional letter. Doesn't seem like a good time to be price conscious.)

I've worked in publishing, and I just can't get passed the idea that I am involved in a "formatting" job here. We will even get a copy of the stone "proofs" before the "publishing" job is finalized. The idea of memorializing the person who gave birth, nurtured, raised, loved and advised me by making choices of colors and fonts seems absurd.

But it's necessary. A gravestone, it seems to me, serves three purposes. The practical one is to mark the spot where she is buried so that we don't have to go around searching for her burial site every time we visit the cemetery. Another is to honor the deceased through text. For example, we have chosen the phrase from the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 31, verse 26, also known as Ayshet Chayal, "she opens her mouth with wisdom." This phrase surely captures one of my mother's essential traits.

Lastly, the setting of the stone serves to drive home the finality and reality of death. It's the last act in the process of acknowledging death. It turns the grave into a permanent space. As such, it's a painful act. That's probably the main reason I'm having trouble dealing with it. Saying kaddish is an abstract act. Choosing and setting a gravestone is painfully real.

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