Mary O’Hearn of Peabody asks: As a Catholic I’ve had the experience of visiting cemeteries that have flowers on graves. Why are Jewish graves not decorated as well?

created at: 2012-12-31In a definite sense, Jewish graves are ecorated as well, but with a different emphasis.
Firstly, one does see flowers on Jewish graves. In Israel today, many place floral adornments, particularly in military cemeteries. Such colorful tributes can be a source of solace to the bereaved, symbolizing both their love and the natural beauty associated with the persona of their cherished departed.

However, Jewish tradition urges the placement of stones far more than flowers upon the headstone by those visiting this sacred site. Unlike flowers, the stone suggests both permanence and a connection with biblical texts detailing stones as the appropriate memorial for the deceased. A strong wind might scatter flowers, but not even the smallest concrete witness. A stone, unlike flowers, is timeless. Beyond the many Old Testament examples of the erection of such monuments to those gone, we associate such timelessness as well with the eternal presence of the human soul – one not subject to finite parameters. We believe in the immortality of the soul, and decorate graves accordingly.

Additionally, there was a time when flowers at such locations were considered to be the custom of faiths other than Judaism. In order to distinguish traditional Jewish practice, therefore, flowers as the main focus of either gifts to the bereaved family or graveside placements were discouraged. Both the family and community were encouraged to honor the deceased through contributions to worthy causes, be those a synagogue, hospital, medical research related to the possible affliction of the departed, or any cause of meaning to those concerned.

No doubt such philanthropy is similarly central to other religions, for ultimately – whether through stones, flowers or charity – we are all children of one God.

created at: 2012-12-31

Rabbi Alan Turetz is the rabbi at Temple Emeth, a Conservative synagogue in Chestnut Hill.

Learn more about Jewish mourning traditions from InterfaithFamily.