My mother-in-law was a feisty woman, who was always up for a rousing debate, especially about her faith. Still, given that she was a cradle Catholic who spent several years in a convent boarding school as a child, her decision to join the Jewish Community Center in her 70s, after her husband died, was a surprise to all of us.
Sure, they had a great pool, which was her primary reason for joining, so she said, but it became obvious that she also took great pleasure in being the lone Catholic wolf in what would soon become her small community of Jewish women. I’m sure there was more than a little fire in their conversations, and her name was Muriel.
So, when her funeral procession pulled in to the cemetery last week, and I realized that the veteran’s section, where my mother-in-law would be buried with her husband, was adjacent to the Jewish section of the cemetery, I had to laugh.
There would certainly be no dearth of spirited dialogue for this special lady of blessed memory.
While we waited along the narrow path in our cars, my husband noticed that most of the tombstones on Jewish graves had small rocks of various sizes resting on top of them, and he wondered at the significance. Stones, after all, are ordinary, cold and lifeless, certainly lacking the color and beauty of flowers.
But, as with so many things, the beauty of meaning often lies beyond sight.
The Jewish people find great significance in stones – ancient altars were often formed with piles of rocks, and graves were marked with them in the form of cairns. One of the most sacred sites of the Jewish faith, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, is comprised of stones that have tasted the tears and heard the prayers of the Jewish people for centuries.
And then there is God, who King David calls “the Rock of my salvation,” and who is known as the Rock of Israel.
And didn’t Jesus, the “corner stone,” change Simon’s name to Peter, saying, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”?
In Jewish tradition, when a visitor places a rock or pebble on a headstone, it symbolizes the presence of God, whose love and covenant is enduring. By engaging in this meaning ritual, a person is also participating in the mitzvah, or commandment, of making a marker at the grave to honor the deceased.
As one rabbi has written, “We are taught that it is an act of ultimate kindness and respect to bury someone and place a marker at the site.”
Looking out across the wide expanse of the memorial garden where Muriel was to be buried, I looked in wonder at the sight of hundreds of tombstones, and almost everyone had stones of varying shapes and sizes sitting on top; stones of remembrance.
I thought a lot about remembering, about love and kindness, and was grateful for the Spirit of God which propels us to toward holiness even when we really don’t fully understand how, or why. Like the Jewish people, we trust that God’s commandments and God’s whisperings are leading us into wholeness and communion, with God and each other.
And I like to think that God, like so many visitors to a Jewish grave, leaves markers in our lives as a sign of his presence and a reminder that we are loved and never forgotten.