I walked back a few paces and watched. We’d just completed the service for the stone-setting of a much loved member of our community; two hundred people were gathered there out of love for her and her family. Greetings followed; hugs, affectionate words. Then, rather than going home, several of the crowd separated out to look for family graves, a friend, a brother, a parent, a spouse, a baby who scarcely knew the sounds of this world. I watched, and tried to greet people as they returned: Were they alright? What was happening with the sores in their hearts?
This scene has stayed with me all week despite the many concerns of the last days: fear for John Cantlie and all the hostages of IS; relief over the Scottish referendum (so long as there’ll now be a time of listening and healing): worry, as ever, over what the future holds for Israel and all the people of the Middle East. Through all these matters I still see before me that group, of different heights and ages, wearing variously coloured clothes, parting between the off-grey stones, here a single figure, there two persons together, to visit those for whom death has not diminished their love; that gradual dispersal of the living into the quiet among the dead, and their slow, humbled return.
I thought of the verses which every year open our Torah reading on the Shabbat before the New Year, speaking of ‘all those here standing with us today before God, and all those not here with us on this day’. We tend to think of our community as the people we bump into, in the street, shops or synagogue. But that’s only one part of it. In fact we belong to a far greater community across time, comprising those who were once living, those yet to be born to our children and children’s children, and us, the generations currently alive, moving slowly, dressed in our various colours, between the dead and the unborn.
I find nothing morbid in these thoughts. On the contrary, they inspire in me a sense of love, and responsibility. That’s partly because the dead aren’t entirely dead and gone. They live in our hearts, words and mannerisms, both in those qualities we liked so much we hoped to make them our own, and in precisely those quirks and habits we swore we’d never inflict on our own children when the time came – and yet, of course, we do. From the dead we have our greatest nourishment of spirit; our memories and our prayer-books are filled with their music, the very melodies with which we too now measure out our lives.
This must have been what moved me as I watched so many people I care about go out among the gravestones to listen to the remembered voices of those they love.
It’s not just about the past; it’s even more about the future. One has only to think of the queue of buggies outside the synagogue, the most precious treasure of any community. Whether or not we have children of our own, we are all transmitters into the future, creators of memory, generators of impact on the minds and feelings of other people and on the world itself. Therefore we need to be mindful of what it is we give them, as the past with all its loves, and faults and failures, flows through us into the future.
As we came back down the cemetery paths to re-encounter our friends, our cars, our future, I felt not so much sad as humbled at having observed something precious and important, even, in an unusual way, beautiful. For this is what it means to be human: to carry the love the dead have given us and place it tenderly, respectfully, thankfully in the hearts of the future, blessed with the gleanings of our own sojourning, the frightening mystery of an owl’s call, the even respiration of the sea, the beauty of a bowl of apples and the melodies of prayers interwoven with whispered conversations.
This is as much as we can achieve, faithfully, before God.