November 26, 2013
This past Friday, I stood in the southwest corner of Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, with a chain-link fence and a few feet separating the tiny island of section #83 from northbound traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway. Line 4, grave 18 is the final resting place of a young boy – my uncle Jerome. I never met him and I don’t know a lot about him. Until recently, no one in the family knew where he was buried. Those who did were long gone.
All we had was a frayed birth certificate from 1935 and my mother’s memory of being very young when he died, some time in the 1940s. She recalled visiting the cemetery just once and seeing a temporary wooden marker placed at the gravesite. A headstone was a luxury compared to rent and food for the family living in a South Bronx tenement. They were fortunate to have a plot – donated by a Jewish Burial Society – even if it was in Queens.
In 2002, after much research and some luck, I located Jerome’s death certificate in the New York City municipal archives. It listed the date of his death and where he was buried.
Soon after, we visited the cemetery and my parents arranged to have a modest stone placed at the gravesite, which was bare for nearly 60 years. It meant a lot to my mother, and I was glad to have played a part in resolving this family mystery and keeping Jerome’s memory alive.
I was reminded of Jerome in Luke’s gospel when the condemned man says to Jesus, “remember me”. And Jesus replies, Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Whether we are Jewish, Christian, or of any other faith, I believe we will be remembered and welcomed into Paradise, as Jesus tells the condemned man.
I was raised Catholic following in the tradition of my father and his family; however, my mother gave to me an appreciation for the Jewish faith and culture. Although she was not active in her faith at the time, I knew it was important to her. When she and my father married in 1963, it caused quite the stir. How times have changed.
One of my favorite traditions of Jewish culture is that of placing a stone on a grave. It is an act of ultimate kindness and respect to bury someone and place a marker at the site. After a person is buried, of course, we can no longer participate in burying them. However, even if a tombstone has been erected, we can participate in the mitzvah (commandment, good deed) of making a marker at a grave, by adding to the stone. Therefore, customarily, we place stones on top of a gravestone whenever we visit to indicate our participation in the mitzvah of erecting a tombstone, even if only in a more symbolic way.