“In the beginning there was the word.” So it says in John 1:1. (Which, for the non-scientific/rational-minded among us, makes a smidgen more sense than Genesis’ “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth,” because, obviously, that wasn’t the beginning, since there was a god already in place to do the creating, therefore necessitating an even earlier beginning when this god entity turned up. Of course, if you listen to others, who can be found hanging out and furtively smoking on the corner of Physics and Theology, there was no beginning, there is no end, no edge, or borders – the nothingness in which the universe expands always was, always will be, and goes on forever. having no physical or existential limits. If, of course, there is even such a thing as existence. Be still, my Earthbound, finite mind.)
We held my mother’s unveiling a week ago. For those out of that particular loop: In Jewish tradition, sometime between about six months and a year after a person’s death the family is called back to the grave; in the interim, the tombstone has been completed, and, for this occasion, it is covered with a cloth that is, at the end of a brief ceremony, torn off or in some way removed, to reveal – or “unveil” – the finished monument. It’s intended to be a cathartic event, providing, in today’s touchy-feely parlance, closure. (As if, with the death of a loved one, there can be such a thing, until, of course, you come to a close.)
The tombstone in question here has been in place since 1993, when my father died. His name and dates are on one side of the stone, and for all those years my mother’s side was blank, absent only a “Coming Soon – Watch this Location” sign. Likewise, and strangely: Although the ground in front of the stone looked exactly the same whether on my father’s side or my mother’s, his had a placeness – not only because we knew that he was buried there (and that we humans are squeamish about stepping on graves), which posits a certain “sacred” authority to a patch of ground, but also because the stone had his name on it. Words defined the space; where his name on the stone ended was, in our minds, the dividing line between holy ground and just turf. We can’t imagine, really, the casket below (or, perhaps, don’t want to), but his name and accompanying words and numbers give the place a space, a solidity, even some sort of air rights. The half of the plot that would someday hold my mother’s remains was simply the place we stood on to look at my father’s half – like standing in front of a vacant store: no “there” there …until a sign goes up announcing the new tenant.
Now, my mother is there, and, when we removed that gauzy fabric, so was her name, chiseled in stone. And that made all the difference. Until then, she wasn’t there; once the words were visible, she was. Now her patch of ground was not what it had been – now, with the presence of her name and dates, it had power. In an out-of-sight-out-of-mind world, she is now officially, authoritatively, in sight, and that acknowledged “thereness” – in a bland, modern cemetery of such little “thereness” – is a strong placeness with emotional impact. The words make it – her death, her absence – real. It happened. It is final. Not the cemetery setting, not the slightly mounded earth, but those letters etched in that stone. The truth is there.