Tombstones And Trees – Diane Gottlieb

I was 44 when I bought a tombstone. It was a double, to stand guard over two side-by-side burial plots. This was not advanced planning or an attempt to lock in the space and price of prime cemetery real estate. I wasn’t following Midrashic advice that suggests buying plots when you’re alive and well. Neither was my decision inspired by superstition: many believe that buying a plot will ensure a long life. I wish I’d done it for any, or all, of those reasons. But the reason I bought the tombstone and plots was because my husband, who’d also been my high school sweetheart, had died in a car accident one rainy November evening on his way home from work.

I somehow found the wherewithal to make funeral arrangements, bought a simple pine box and a plot for him to be lowered into the dirt. But soon after, the empty spot beside him seemed to call my name. I drove to the cemetery on frigid fall mornings and left my coat in the car. And while Jews are discouraged from stepping directly onto a grave, I’d lay face down on the bare earth that covered him—no plantings would take until the spring—and press my chest against the hard, cold soil. I ached for my heart to again be close to his.

After my husband’s death, I dreamt about resting beside him for eternity. Awake, I imagined climbing right in. But as a suddenly single parent to three grieving children, my own death was not an option.

My first memory of death was in Palmer, Massachusetts, at Camp Ramah, the sleepaway camp where I spent many childhood summers. At Ramah, Tisha B’Av, the somber holiday commemorating the destruction of the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem, was a big deal. On the only major fast day besides Yom Kippur, even kids younger than bar or bat mitzvah age were encouraged to fast or at least eat lightly.

Perhaps to evoke feelings of devastation and sadness in us, our counselors focused almost entirely on the Holocaust, not the Temple. The day was filled with ceremonies of remembrance, mourning songs, and movies—seemingly endless black and white reels of skeletal bodies tossed one on top of the other in mass graves. Long lines to the gas chambers, smoke and ash billowing from crematorium chimneys. A survivor spoke of the stench; she said something about the sick, sweet stink of burnt glue. During that day, I’d sneak away to find relief under an old oak outside my cabin. Later that night as I tried to sleep, I imagined hearing roaring flames, smelling scorched flesh. I pinched my skin until it hurt, my ten-year-old attempt to sympathize with those who suffered and perished in the Shoah.

That fall, my father’s mother died. I had never met my grandmother but had heard stories of Sabta Hannah. She lived in Jerusalem, and families didn’t travel much overseas back then. Since her burial was the next day, Dad didn’t make it to the funeral, but he sat shiva in our home. When he heard the news that his mother had died, my father tore his shirt, following the custom called Kriah, the rendering of one’s clothing to represent the tear in one’s heart. Mom covered the mirrors, and Dad sat on a low stool. He didn’t shave for a week.

I did not grow up in a religious home, but our connections to Judaism were strong. My dad left Cologne, Germany in 1943, just in time. He settled in Palestine and fought in the ’48 War. My mom was a sabra—born and raised in Jerusalem’s Old City. We lived and breathed our heritage. Still, I’d never before seen my father unshaven, the look on his face of mourning. At night, when the lights were out, I wondered about our seemingly strange traditions—and about graves and the darkness underground.

After my husband died, I had to many decisions to make with few people to help me. Just a few months earlier, we had moved to a rural area two hours from friends and family. Would we stay in our home in the woods without him? The once-welcoming, tall, graceful pines surrounding our property now felt like bars penning me in. I ordered death certificates, called social security, removed my husband’s name from our accounts.

I became a seeker—looking for guidance in odd places, like tarot and shamanism. I filled my home with crystals. I made friends with the forest pines, placing my hands against their solid trunks, and yes, I hugged them, too. I found some comfort in New Age traditions but mostly in the trees, feeling their life source reawaken mine. It was in the woods that I felt most connected to God.

Growing up in a six-story apartment building in Queens, N.Y, I did not have access to forests and woods, especially since my family did not own a car. But I often thought fondly of the trees at camp. I hadn’t realized, at the time, their deep ties to Judaism. The Jewish National Fund has planted more than 250 million trees in Israel since its inception in 1901, many donated in memory of departed loved ones. The Jewish holiday Tu’Bishvat celebrates a new year for trees. The Torah itself is called the tree of life, bearing fruit of infinite knowledge through its teachings. Planting trees shows a deep sense of both responsibility and hope for future generations.

A year after my husband died, the kids and I moved back downstate. It was hard to leave him, and I wondered about the empty plot. At the time of his death, buying the double stone and plots seemed like the right decision. But I was young enough to make a new life, maybe with another man. Maybe I’d want to be buried by new love’s side instead.

It took me six years to start dating, and I did meet a wonderful man. We’ve been married now for nearly a decade. At sixty-one, I hopefully have many years left ahead, but lately, I’ve been thinking again about death and burial. I’m no longer consulting the tarot or meditating on crystals. I’m looking to my Jewish roots for answers.

My current husband wants to be cremated, but I can’t consider that; it feels too close to Auschwitz for me. Besides, I’ve learned, cremation is a huge Jewish no-no. Because the body is holy, like a Torah scroll, it cannot be burned. Our tradition teaches that God loans a soul to a body and the loan must be repaid when a person dies. Earth to earth, and all that. I like the thought of my body on loan. Returning it to God, feels like a Thank you. It’s been real. I’ve also learned that rabbinic scholars counsel that a remarried widow should be buried next to the spouse with whom she had children. Rabbinic scholars have counsel for all things, after all.

I have a paid-up plot ready, an empty half-tombstone, waiting. But that—along with the rabbinical counsel—is not the reason for my decision. Joining my first husband in the plot next to his feels like closing an open circle. Coming back home to the father of my children, to my roots.

There are three names for cemeteries in Hebrew. Bet kevarot is a house of graves. Bet Olam a house of eternity. Bet Hayyim, a house of life. I’d like to think I’ll be laid to rest in a Bet Hayyim, joining my ancestors underground by way of a simple pine box, a nod to those pines in the woods that fed me, made me feel again the spark of life that had always been inside me. When the time comes, may my remains add to the richness of the soil and one day nourish the trees.

2 thoughts on “Tombstones And Trees – Diane Gottlieb

  1. Pingback: Tombstones and Trees in The Jewish Literary Journal - Diane Gottlieb

  2. maurice krystal

    I like the way it melds together at the end. Life and death, trees and pine boxes, bodies lent out and returned. I never thought about who to be buried next to if I remarried. I am wondering what thoughts your present husband feels about your decision to be buried next to your first husband.


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