April 14, 2009

Unveiling the stone

On March 29 we unveiled the stone marking my father's grave. This ancient Jewish custom marks a transition point during the year of mourning for a parent.

My family chose this date for purely practical reasons: Rik was on spring break, so we could travel; my sister's family is going away later in the spring; and if we waited until June it would be too close to the anniversary of Dad's death. So we chose April.

On the east coast, April means spring. (Usually that's true in Seattle as well, but it's been remarkably cold and so still feels like winter here.) Daffodils are blooming. Trees are beginning to leaf out after a winter's rest. It was somehow both appropriate and incongruous to gather at the cemetery on a wet spring morning.

My rabbi had loaned copies of a pamphlet outlining the basics of an unveiling service. We read some psalms, I chanted El Maleh Rachamim (God full of compassion), we recited the mourners' kaddish. Then we removed the cloth, literally "unveiling" the grave stone.

As we each picked up a stone to place on his grave, I asked everyone to take a moment to say a few words about Dad. I'm so glad my mother took this opportunity to unburden herself of a bit of her grief. She told my dad that he'd be proud that she had picked up the pieces of her life and was taking care of things the way he'd want her to. Mom had had a rough few weeks, with their wedding anniversary in mid-March and the unveiling in early April.

I had brought two small stones from Seattle for Rik and I to place on Dad's grave. One was from the Pacific coast beach where we've spent the past few summers. And one was from our own yard. That way a bit of Seattle stays in New Jersey with Dad.

Although I didn't take a photo of the stone, it gives his names: in English, COHEN Sheldon C and in Hebrew, Shimon Shir ben Zalman HaKohen. The stone is bordered by sheaves of wheat.

In the center is a carving of birkat hakohanim, the priestly blessing. Being a Cohen was very important to my dad, and he taught me how to hold my fingers for the priestly blessing when I was very young.

And when we were finished at the cemetery, we went back to my sister's house to participate in the life-affirming Jewish ritual of eating. There were even a few onion cookies, with which we toasted Dad z"l, zichrono livracha, may his name be a blessing.

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