on the practice of unveiling monuments
This evening, I will stand at the grave of a man we buried almost a year ago. About eleven months have gone by, during which this man’s family has grieved publicly and privately. Today, they will gather at the cemetary and unveil the marker which will tell people that this man is buried beneath their feet. This is done as an act of tribute, love and memory. Everyone is familiar with gravestones, statuary or markers of this type. Why do Jews wait eleven months after a funeral to put up such a memorial?
There are a few reasons. First, we believe that one should not need a memory aid soon after a loss. Certainly the sting of grief lasts more than a few months, more even than a year, and it is appropriate to wait a bit. It also might seem insulting to the spirit of a person that we couldn’t wait to put up their headstone.
In the mystical tradition of our people, we are taught that the souls of the dead undergo a period of purgatory in a place called “Gehenna”. It’s a place where you don’t want to spend any more time than necessary. A person can be held in this purgatory for up to one year while they clean up any unpaid spiritual debts and review the ‘game tapes’ of their most recent mortal life. We as a matter of policy do not think that any of our loved ones could possibly need the full year of purgatory, so we visit the cemetary eleven months after a funeral, set up the stone that serves as a memorial marker and recite kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) one more time. And with this ceremony, the soul of our loved one is released to the next part of their journey, and we return to the status quo ante mortum.
May the memories of our dead be an abiding blessing.