Honoring Those Before Us
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Article reprinted with permission from Cleveland Jewish News.
By Regina Brett
I love a good cemetery.
A good cemetery isn’t just for the dead, it’s for the living. So much life goes on in a good cemetery.
People sit and chat with deceased parents, spouses and children. People leave their stories and their stones, their regrets and their rocks, their prayers and their pardons.
That’s why it’s so important to preserve cemeteries. Kudos to the Jewish Federation of Cleveland for making it such a big priority that it posted these words on its website: “There is no greater mitzvah than honoring those who came before us.”
As the Cleveland Jewish News recently reported in an article by Ed Wittenberg, the Federation is trying to raise $3.5 million, enough money to sustain the annual maintenance costs forever for the six Jewish cemeteries it manages through the Federation’s Commission on Cemetery Preservation. The article said that the Federation has raised almost $2.8 million for its Cemetery Preservation Campaign, but is $700,000 short.
When you help preserve a cemetery, you aren’t just taking care of headstones or the grass or trees. You’re preserving the stories of all who passed so they can live on.
The Federation website says there are 16 Jewish cemeteries in the Cleveland area, plus three cemeteries with Jewish sections in Cleveland. That’s 69,000 graves to maintain where Jewish people who lived, laughed and loved are buried.
The COCP manages six of those cemeteries. That’s about 14,000 graves.
Some cemeteries are in areas that no longer have a Jewish community present. Those graves still deserve the dignity a Jewish community can provide.
Money is used to remove trees, set stones that are leaning or have fallen over, cut grass and weeds that are choking headstones, fix broken fences and cover annual clean up.
If you can’t give money, give time. Recruit your synagogue, neighbors or coffee klatch to clean up some graves.
Why do graves matter so much? They keep memories alive, and when memories live, so do the people who passed.
When you keep the stories alive, you keep your ancestors alive. You keep the people you love alive and you show dignity to all those who have no family to care for their graves.
When my brother-in-law Gary visits from Miami, he and my husband often go to Mount Olive Cemetery to “visit” their mom. They don’t just put a rock on her headstone; they pull lawn chairs out of the trunk and sit and visit.
They talk about everything they miss about her. She died abruptly when she was 45; Gary was just 13 and my husband was 21. She left a hole in their hearts that nothing can fill, but that visit softens the blow -- just a little.
My dad took us to the cemetery religiously. He’s now buried there, next to his parents in a small Catholic cemetery in Ravenna.
Every Memorial Day he took us there to put flowers on the graves and to clean away the leaves and weeds. He would visit his parents’ graves and take us to the graves where my mom’s parents were buried.
He always made sure to take us to the baby area near the fence. The markers were as small as newborns and hard to find. They sat low to the ground, as if the grass itself was snuggling them.
We always looked for the little grave of Michael Francis Brett. My dad’s baby brother lived for just 5 1/2 months, from April to September. I wouldn’t even know he existed but for that marker. It gave my dad a chance to tell the story of his little brother, how baby Michael must have suffocated in the covers when he didn’t wake up that morning. Every time Dad told it, he got a tear in his eyes.
He was only 7 when his brother died in 1922, but a 7-year-old boy doesn’t forget losing his baby brother, ever. The cemetery made us all remember. There are no photos of baby Michael, just a grave for us to know he existed.
Cemeteries are sacred places.
Not just for the dead, but for the living, whose lives go on and on to tell the stories of those who lived and laughed and loved.
No cemetery should die of neglect. The people buried there deserve better. So do the people who loved them.