Memorial Day and Yizkor
Rabbi Melanie Aron
Sunday, May 27, 2012
How do we ritualize the remembrance of those we love? In American culture placing flowers at the cemetery is one way that we remember our loved ones, and thus Decoration Day, the predecessor of the current Memorial Day.
While there are many explanations for the origins of this holiday, everyone agrees that it emerged out of the heavy losses of the Civil War. One story which seems especially poignant to me is the tracing of this commemoration to a ceremony conducted by freed former slaves at the graves of union soldiers who had been held as prisoners during the war in Charleston South Carolina. On May 1, 1865, 10,000 freedmen came to pay their respects and lay flowers, hence decoration day, at the burial field in today’s Hampton Park.
Visiting at the grave is important in Jewish culture as well. Even when we live at a distance it is a custom to travel to visit the grave annually, preferably during the month before the high holidays. While excessive visits are discouraged, and the mourner is not to make their life center around visits to the cemetery, still it is customary to visit the grave of our loved ones, if we are nearby, on the last day of the sheloshim, on the yarzheit and on Jewish fast days. Some visit before the High Holy Days, some between, and some communities visit the day before the new months of Elul and Nisan. At the grave one might read psalms, or study a paragraph of the Mishnah, something that was considered accessible to all, and recite the El Malei Rachamim.
Heartfelt personal prayers for both the deceased and for the living were customarily recited, and a stone placed on the grave as a sign that one had come.
The Midrash tells us that when Caleb was scouting out the land at Moses’ instruction he went to Hevron, to visit Maarat HaMachpelah, the cave in which Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Leah were buried. It was the merit of this good deed that prevented him from going astray as 10 of the spies did, and which lead to his being spared the sentence of dying in the desert like most of his generation.
In Judaism today we have other ways of remembering our loved one, not tied to the gravesite, including the lighting of candles at yarzheit and when yizkor is recited, the recitation of Kaddish, and the dedication of good deeds and charity to the memory of the deceased. Our memorial garden was envisioned in part as a way of giving our members, particularly those from other parts of the country, a place to come and remember close family members and friends.
Being in some way able to continue one’s loved ones values and work in the world can be very meaningful. A friend whose mother was a teacher, has started tutoring as a way of keeping her mother’s memory alive. Her volunteering is thus doubly meaningful, not only as a way of helping children learn to read, but also to keep her mother’s memory alive. Someone else I know takes his kids to the ball games that his father would have taken them to had he still been alive. In this way they remember grandpa doing something that he enjoyed doing with them. When we have lost a family member because of a particular disease, working with an organization that helps those suffering from that disease can be especially meaningful. One can give them what one can no longer give to one’s loved on.
In a society that tends to believe in moving on from that which was difficult, both Memorial Day and Yizkor are important in giving us permission to remember and dwell on our memories. May these memories inspire us to deeds of compassion and tzedakah that the remembrance of our loved ones may inspire blessing in our lives.