Jewish cemeteries are often referred to as beitei kvarot, literally houses of graves. They are also known by many euphemistic names: a beit hayim, a house of life or a beit olam, a house of eternity. In Yiddish, a cemetery is called a heylige-ort, a holy place or a gute-ort, a good place. You might say we use these names to deny our mortality, to suggest that we will live forever. Alternatively, you might say that we speak of the plots that hold our dead as holy places of the living because their very existence reminds us to live a good life, a worthy life, a life of purpose. Those who are memorialized there help our families live on, anchored to our history and to our past.
There's something unsettlingly quiet and contemplative about these spaces that make us wonder what will one day be chiseled in stone about us. We might see the outstretched hands that signal that a priest was buried in this spot or a jug of water to indicate a Levite. There might be a crown to suggest a person of importance or candlesticks for a pious woman. A mohel's tombstone might have two chairs or a hand holding a lancet. A tzedaka box often graces the tombstone of the charitable, and books the grave of a scholar. A lion might mark someone of strength and leadership. Thus, we walk through a field of stones that represents the myriad individuals that make our communities rich, diverse and sacred. We walk through Jewish cemeteries and note long lives and short lives, recognizable last names and strange ones. Every once in a while, we catch our own last names on a stone and take a sharp breath in.
The mitzva to build cemeteries is very, very old, as old as the first Jew. When Sarah died, Abraham's first purchase of land in Canaan was a burial place for his wife that would one day be peopled by our most formidable ancestors. A careful look at the text is suggestive:
"Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, 'I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.' The Hittites replied to Abraham, 'Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.' Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, 'If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you'" (Genesis 23:3-10).
Abraham introduces his desire to buy a plot by saying that he has a vulnerable status. He is a stranger. He lives there but has no land there. Perhaps he becomes most aware of his difference when he loses his wife, his partner in building a new faith community. He knows what we have all come to know; where we bury our dead and where we choose to be buried ourselves tells us about the relationship we have to a place. It may also help us understand why it is important for a person to own his or her plot (BT Bava Batra 112a) and have a genuine claim to the land. According to Jewish law, even paupers are entitled to plots paid out of communal funds. Abraham did not want a hand-out. He wanted to know that this his wife was buried in a place that was his, that he could clean, nurture, care for and visit unobstructed.
This week, following the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, a Muslim student asked me if there was anything she could do, disgusted as she was by yet another hate crime. I was touched. After we spoke, I thought a lot about what all of us can do. Of course, people can try to repair the damage, clean up and send money. But then I realized that maybe something more expansive is called for. Maybe this is a good time to support the local hevre kadisha, a society of volunteers who prepare the dead for burial. Maybe this is a good time to clean up and restore to reverence the many non-desecrated Jewish cemeteries that need some love. And maybe, just maybe, this is a good time to buy your own plot and secure a more eternal home.