"Dear Alan and Elisha,
"We are planning to have the unveiling service for Belle [my mother, who died last year] on Sunday, November 22 at the Haym Solomon Memorial Park, Frazer, PA at 11am. We would love to have you join us, but please – [there’s] no pressure."
[Invitation to brunch afterward.]
The above is an invitation from my brother and sister-in-law (Deb, although a New Hampshire Congregationalist, follows along with my brother’s Judaism Lite, while keeping his life free of any hint of Christianity. Whatever works for them. It’s all good.)
Here is what I am being invited to (from shiva.com, “the resource for Jewish mourning”):
“Within the first year after the passing of a loved one, mourners and their family gather at the gravesite for a ceremony called the unveiling, the placing of the tombstone. At this event, a grave marker is put into place and the monument is formally dedicated. There are a variety of specific customs that revolve around the gravesite to honor the person who is now deceased…it is not necessary for rabbis or cantors to be involved. It is a spiritual time for the family to comfort each other and remember their loved one.
“The ceremony typically has a certain order of events. First, there are readings from the book of Psalms; other prayers may be recited as well. Next, there is a eulogy from either the rabbi or a family member. At that point, the Moleh, or Memorial Prayer, takes place. Finally, the Kaddish [prayer for the dead, consists largely of kissing God’s ass] is recited, and the cloth or veil that has covered the headstone is removed…
“The ceremony …should be held sometime during the first year after someone has died.”
Here is what I didn’t send:
Dear El and Deb,
Thanks for the invitation. I couldn’t help but notice the reference to “pressure.” Don’t worry: I always know when you and my brother are applying “pressure” – he’s very clear about it -- and you’re graciously going to give me a pass on this one.
The “please – no pressure” is a syntactic fumble, corrected by the addition of there’s. People make more errors when writing about subjects that affect them emotionally, and while Deb’s New England reserve prohibits her from talking about it (after 40 years, she still signs off with “fondly”), our differences on the subject of religion (and on my mother, but that’s another whole story) are a potential minefield of emotions, discussion of which would cause discomfort, and there’s nothing worse than discomfort.
You should know by now that I do not attend any religious ceremony, that I am psychologically allergic to prayer, which I view as a consensual psychosis and which I will not help validate with my presence. When El started reciting Hebrew blessings at his son’s wedding, I walked out, as if my legs were carrying me off without a conscious thought from my brain (I came back later).
I have never been able to figure out your three-day-a-year Judaism. Don’t you know that the punishment for violating the laws of the Torah, including working on the Sabbath (not to mention marrying a gentile) is death? Do you have a special arrangement with God? What do you say to the Orthodox, who practice one ritual or another almost every waking moment and who don’t consider you Jewish at all?
I think time has a lot to do with it: you’ve been going through the motions for so many years, it’s too much effort to question it now. I, on the other hand, have done nothing but question it. My answer took the form of doing nothing, then, as you know, Humanistic Judaism.
I later came to realize that HJ was a failed compromise, drifting backwards to Torah-worship…and that there really was no reason for me to identify with any of it.
Judaism is what it is: a lot of primitive-shepherd stuff, overlaid with millions of subsequent rabbi-hours of deliberations, interpretation, storytelling, and philosophizing, while the women did all the housework. Most of it has to be wrestled into any kind of modern relevance, since most of it has to do with what God wants or what he meant in this or that Biblical passage.
As years of disconnection went by, it became easier for me to view the whole enterprise as bankrupt, arbitrary, and irrelevant.
But I digress. Even if I loved and respected Mom at all, I still wouldn’t come anywhere near a grave. If it is the location of anything, it is a vortex of superstition and morbid fantasy. It is certainly not the location of my Mother. To mistake her remains for her self…well, there’s something Neanderthal about that.
Belle is GONE. She ceased to exist when her body no longer could sustain itself. But the monuments to fantasy are everywhere (at least, it seems so in rural New England), devouring (along with golf courses) land that is often strategically located and could be put to better use.
It is around death that religion really steps in. People are especially weak and needy. As far as clergy is concerned, death is the gift that keeps on giving, keeps people mumbling prayers and visiting graves. The supply of dying and dead people will never dry up!
So go, unveil, have a brunch and have a ball. Do what is expected, as you always do. But again, dear brother, I cannot help asking myself, as I have so many times over the years: with all of your education and sophistication, what the hell are you thinking when you recite Kaddish?