Cremation ceremonies, interactive Web sites, unusual tombstones, singalong funerals - bereaved families are beginning to use a variety of creative means to keep alive the memory of their loved ones
All my life the children were hanging around my neck. Now I'll be hanging around theirs," said the first customer of Alon Nativ, director of the Aley Shalechet (Autumn Leaves) funeral home. She was joking about the fact that after her death, she has asked that her body undergo a process of "turning into ashes" (cremation) that will thereafter be made into an artificial, diamond-like stone, which will be set in a piece of jewelry to be given to her children. This is a process that is still rare in Israel, but is definitely familiar in the United States, where some people have, for example, asked that their ashes be inserted in fireworks and launched skyward in a festive ceremony instead of a funeral, sent into space inside a special capsule, or incorporated in a device used for rehabilitating coral reefs.
Now locally as well the burial and commemoration market has begun to develop. Cemeteries catering to secular customers offer grassy burial expanses, artists create special gravestones, and new companies advise clients on organizing funerals, documenting the ceremony and maintaining graves. Private initiatives are also on the rise and include trips to commemorate the deceased, memorial sports competitions and scholarships.
Two such initiatives were invented by Yossi Zur - who in the past year alone received 700 packages and letters containing stones from all over the world - and by Ron Kehrmann, who during the same period received about the same number of drawings of camels. Zur and Kehrmann are both bereaved fathers from Haifa. Their children, Asaf (Blondi) Zur, almost 17, and Tal Kehrmann, almost 18, got onto a No. 37 bus on March 5, 2003. At about 2:10 P.M., on Moriah Boulevard, at the entrance to the Carmelia neighborhood, a terrorist blew himself up in the bus. Seventeen people were murdered in the attack, including the two children.
Since then the two fathers have been investing many hours in commemorating their children. A former swimmer, Kehrmann initiated a swimming competition named after his daughter, Taharutal (the Tal competition), and every spring he organizes a trip in her memory. In his printing house he has printed car stickers (see: www.tal-smile.com), with a picture of a camel, Tal's favorite animal, and next to it the inscription (which rhymes in Hebrew): "Tal's smile never wilted."
He got the idea of using Tal's love of camels about a year ago. He took a drawing of a camel she had made, enlarged it, posted it on his Web site and asked surfers to color it in, scan it and send it back to him via e-mail. These are the hundreds of drawings mentioned above, including those of a "rocker" camel, a cola-drinking camel, a singing camel and an astronaut camel. The oldest person to color the camel is 90; the youngest, a year old.
Zur's collection of stones developed gradually. "As a high-tech person, I travel quite a lot on business, and I always used to take a stone with me and bring it back to the grave. This year Asaf would have been 21, and I thought about the fact that he would probably have gone on a trip abroad. I decided that if Asaf didn't get to see the big, wide world, maybe the big, wide world would come to him - to his grave. I went into some Web sites, sent e-mails, wrote the story, and people responded and sent stones."
They arrived from 70 countries, and many are unique - like one stone from the Berlin Wall and another from the Great Wall of China. They have all been placed in a large pot next to the grave.
In addition, Zur, together with other parents, helped build a playground in his neighborhood, which his two-year-old son now frequents, and set up one Web site to commemorate Asaf (www.blondi.co.il) and another called Eretz Zocheret Yoshveha (A People Remembers; www.ezy.co.il), which is entirely devoted to commemorating the victims of terror acts and displays pictures of memorials from all over the country.
Kehrmann and Zur are active not only privately: Together with Yossi Mendelevitch, the father of Yuval, who was killed in the same Haifa bus attack, the two founded the Three Fathers - a movement whose purpose is to have victims of terror included among the victims of Israel's wars. They believe that memorialization of their children is not related to the way in which they were killed, but simply to their loss. "Commemoration is in my blood," says Kehrmann. "It's like a motor that propels me forward." The problem, he adds, is that as time passes, the story loses its power. What new things can be said about a girl who was killed four years ago?
Zur also tells of the difficulty of finding a new angle each time to commemorate the teenager who was killed and therefore remains at the same point in time: "Asaf should have met people, built a life. Now that's my job, and I'm willing to go to the ends of the earth to tell his story, so people will know him, so he won't disappear."
Many bereaved parents choose to set up commemorative Internet sites. Most of them are set up by men, and the women join later, according to Liav Sadeh Bek, a doctoral student in the department of behavioral sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who has written a study on the subject. The interactive sites enable strangers to get to know the deceased person, to react emotionally to his or her loss, and to take an active part in commemoration.
"It's heartwarming," says Kehrmann, describing how he feels when a new picture of a camel arrives. "It shows that we're not alone. Usually people try not to encounter bereaved persons directly, and here people are writing to me and thinking about Tal. I also walk around with a camel pin on my shirt, and tell anyone who's interested about the girl behind the pin. Thanks to this activity she exists all the time. It makes me happy that people continue to remember her. I'm not willing to accept the fact that she no longer exists, and I'm not willing to forget that I had a daughter."
Zur describes similar feelings: "I can't escape it. Just as I wake up every morning and the children are walking around here, Asaf also remains with me and goes with me everywhere. If I'm not involved with Asaf on a daily basis, how will he remain my son?"
Pebbles and notes
The desire to commemorate a person in a way that will reflect the private nature of the sorrow is also evident in the choice of unique gravestones, which today are sometimes created by artists. In new parts of local cemeteries one can see colored gravestone, such as one from black marble with a natural pinkish stone on top; another constructed of a wooden-and-iron frame, containing brown pebbles; a third made of an unprocessed block of stone. Many of them bear stylized inscriptions, and the texts go beyond the dates of birth and death, and include citations from poems or stories. Occasionally, the text even raises a smile, like "the sweetest boy in the Middle East!" Sometimes a decoration is added, such as a colored drawing of a butterfly or a clock, or a bell, an oil lamp, a little angel figurine, a mobile. In some of the gravestones there is a place for putting small objects, like a note in a bottle, dwarves, plasticine mushrooms. Flat river stones have been placed on many of the graves, with drawings or an inscription, such as "To Grandpa, I love you very much and I'm happy you're my Grandpa."
Sculptor Chen Winkler, who also makes standard gravestones as part of the family business, says that about half his clients want a unique one. "There are people to whom the design is so important that they plan the gravestone even before they die," says Winkler. "These are mainly people who are close to the subject, like architects."
He mentions gravestones in the shape of a certain element related to the deceased, such as a pack of cigarettes and a lighter (designed by Roni Koresh), or a huge strawberry for a moshav member who grew the fruit.
Shahar Anav, who died of cancer 10 months ago at the age of two years and three months, particularly loved trains and locomotives. "We didn't know that there are creative gravestones, if they can be called that," says his father, Ofer, "but we knew that we wanted to make one with a locomotive for Shahar." He turned to Roni Koresh of Merhavia, who crafted the stone for him, in the children's section of the Yarkon cemetery, incorporating the image of Thomas the Tank Engine. Every time Anav comes to the cemetery he brings his son a toy; last month he even installed a special box in which he and members of the family place letters for Shahar. "We miss him terribly and time doesn't help," explains Anav, "and precisely because of that it's important to us that the gravestone be something that is connected to Shahar, to which we can feel a connection. The uniqueness gives us a feeling that it's not just another gravestone, but the gravestone of our Shahar."
Yaffa Raz, from Moshav Shaal on the Golan Heights, was also forced recently to deal with the design of a gravestone for her son Asaf, 27, who was killed about a month ago in a traffic accident. She says it was important to her to invest in the gravestone, which was designed by Chen Winkler, and to have it contain motifs that characterize her son.
"Asaf loved the Golan very much, and therefore it was important to me to put basalt in the gravestone. However, I wanted it to have grandeur, a shine and elegance, and therefore I chose a color-play of ruby-red marble and polished black granite. We scattered brown river stones around it. Alongside the gravestone we chiseled a large basalt stone in the shape of a guitar, and from the sound box emerge musical notes that ascend to the sky, from the song 'Ma avarech' ("How Shall I Bless Him"): 'Oh God, oh God, oh God, if only you had blessed him with life.' That is a line that is very suited to Asaf, who was talented in so many ways. He painted and studied philosophy, worked in education and served as a youth coordinator in the Golan and played many instruments," says Raz. The family placed flowerpots, planted a palm tree and bushes, and installed an awning for shade and a wooden bench with antique-style fixtures near the grave. They plan to plant roses around it in the future.
Yitzhak, the husband of Dalia Vatnik of Afeka, died suddenly three years ago at the age of 64. He was an engineer who loved inventions, gadgets and technological innovation, and was always among the first to buy all kinds of new devices. "I wanted to create a gravestone that would have something clever, like the things he liked," explains Vatnik. The result was a gravestone with a waterfall that works once a day, at sunset, and is operated by a solar cell that is charged during the day. "This solar cell is simply Yitzhak," his widow says. "And when I come here, I want to see signs of life at the grave, I'm looking for renewal."
At the gravestone built by Shlomi Gabel of Atzmon for his wife Ruthie, there is similar use of water and a solar cell. Ruthie, who died of cancer about four years ago at the age of 40, was a gymnast, a dancer and a choreographer.
"After her death I began to think how I could create something special for her," says Gabel. "I wanted something that would reflect her, and soon understood that I wanted something with water, which would symbolize her beauty and her flowing nature. I wanted the grave to be a dynamic place, and not a cold and alienated one. Artist Yossi Barel of Binyamina suggested creating a kind of 'wound' inside the stone, with Ruthie's name descending into it, as in a movement toward the ground, and disappearing in it, with a stream of water below. As painful as the gravestone is, it's pleasant to look at. It's as though it removes the negative associations and somehow conveys her character."
On the gravestone of Ofer Botzer, in the cemetery in Ramat Hasharon, there is a statue of a surfer. Botzer, who died about half a year ago of cancer at the age of 41, was one of the first windsurfers in Israel. He trained many people and won the national championship. "This surfer is simply him," says his father Aaron, also a surfer, a referee at competitions and the chair of the ISAF Windsurfing Committee. "It's the essence of his life."
After Botzer died, fliers from gravestone companies began to arrive at the house. "We're a family with a sense of humor," says Sharon, Ofer's widow, "and we started to talk about all kinds of things that we could do with the gravestone. Laughing and crying. Our house is full of surfers and suddenly, when I looked at a powerful marble statue of a surfer, I understood that it was the right thing to put on the gravestone." Botzer has five children (three from his first marriage), and Sharon says that the gravestone helps their own two children, a four-year-old daughter and a year-old son, to deal with death. "It's impossible to take a girl aged three and a half to a funeral and to expose her to this difficult thing. But it's possible to take her to the gravestone, to show her the surfer, and to tell her that it's a statue in honor of her father, who is no longer alive."
"In the past gravestones were also supposed to be attractive, but the aesthetic of the past was one of modesty," says Prof. Maoz Azaryahu, an expert at commemoration and myths from the department of geography at the University of Haifa. "Today the aesthetic is one of being different and standing out, athough sometimes, the result of the attempt to be different is many variations on the same theme."
"All our lives we are busy with self-fulfillment and with emphasizing our uniqueness. Why should that end with death?" wonders Roni Koresh of Merhavia Koresh, who began to create gravestones after his father's death in 1991. "I like to see a gravestone to which I can relate, which represents something of the personality of the deceased, and not something alien," he explains.
In order to understand the personality of the deceased, the creators of gravestones try to learn about the person - they see pictures, hear about him from his relatives, sometimes even travel to his house. Some of them, like Yossi Barel, sculptor Gershon Heiman and glass artist Ronen Kandel, create only artistic gravestones.
"Death is part of life," says Kandel, "and just as in life we like beautiful things, it's natural that the family wants to see a beautiful gravestone as well. If you try to create something beautiful and to express something through it, that's art in my eyes. Others may call it kitsch."
Naomi Shalev, an artist and a curator, made a connection between her profession and the death of her son, and built an art gallery on his grave. The gallery, in the cemetery in Ramat Hasharon, is actually a glass case - like those she uses in curating exhibitions at Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv. When Shalev speaks of the cemetery she calls it "my cemetery." Buried there are her father, who died 22 years ago, her mother, who died about a month ago at the age of 93, and her son, artist Itai, who died about five years ago at the age of 29.
"Before Itai's death I was afraid of cemeteries. I couldn't enter one. I was afraid of this terrible, horrible, threatening and frightening place. Even after his death I couldn't go in there; it took me half a year to put up the gravestone. I don't come to the cemetery in order to talk to Itai. He's not there. I'm always busy with practical things: I wash the gravestone, water plants and set up exhibitions. The glass case helped me a great deal. It became a place of the dead and a place of life, too."
Every year, in May, on Itai's birthday, Shalev holds an official opening for an exhibition in the little gallery at the grave site, and sets a table there. "Many people were shocked at the idea," she says. "To build a gallery on your son's grave? It's not proper, it's crazy! Some of them told me that later. But I feel that the gallery at the grave saved my life. I feel that I, Naomi Shalev, must deal with Itai's death and must deal with it there, in the cemetery. Dealing with it is difficult, but I mustn't run away, and spending time there makes things easier for me. Slowly but surely, I learned to fall in love with this place. It's a long and complicated process, but today I feel at home in the cemetery. I walk among the graves, read the texts and look at the arrangements of the stones, which are sometimes like flower arrangements."
Surprisingly, even "her bosses," as Shalev calls the ultra-Orthodox directors of the cemetery, like the gallery. She says they say to her, "Oy, there hasn't been a new exhibition for a long time. We're bored."
Among secular people, even the funeral itself is beginning to change. Civil burial, which became possible thanks to the struggle of the Menucha Nechona (Rest in Peace) association, opened a variety of possibilities for the ceremony, including professional moderators and even singalongs. Itai Plaot, a singalong leader, organized his brother-in-law's funeral about three years ago, and since then has been asked to plan other funerals and memorial services. Plaot says that he also leads "singing tours" of cemeteries (for example, to the grave of songwriter Ehud Manor in Binyamina, or to that of songwriter Naomi Shemer and of the poet Rachel at Kibbutz Kinneret). The requests for singing or singalongs are more characteristic of memorial services than of funerals.
"I bring a loudspeaker system, act as moderator and play a song or two on the guitar. It's usually short and to the point, but the result is moving and cultured," he says.
Other funeral planners can be found via the Machon Hatekasim Hachiloni association (www.tekes.co.il) and the Secular Jewish Ceremonies in Israel (www.tkasim.org.il). In the Aley Shalechet funeral home, for example, they suggest that families hold a farewell ceremony in the "cultural language" of the deceased, in the spirit of Judaism or not, accompanied by music, prose or poetry selections, according to the family's wishes. The guests can sit down during the ceremony, and they all receive a piece of paper with a picture of the deceased and details about him, so that even someone who didn't know him personally, and came to console the family, can know to whom he is paying his last respects.
Even the burial itself is no longer an obvious sort of ceremony. During the past two years cremation has also become available, and people choose to do various things with the ashes: to scatter them in the sea or in the garden, on a running route that the deceased liked, or to keep them in an urn or a box and place them in a special site, whether in the yard or the living room. There are families who divide the ashes among several urns, so each child can take one for himself.
"A cemetery is a distant place, which is sometimes hard to get to, especially for the elderly or the ill. It's very convenient to have the urn in the living room, and one can simply approach and unite with it," explains Nativ, from Aley Shalechet.
Documentation is another element that has been added recently to funerals. About 15 families in the country already have at home, in addition to wedding albums, an album that records the funeral of a loved one who has passed away. Photographer Maya Kapelushnik decided to offer "documentation of the final journey" after someone who couldn't get to a certain funeral asked her to record the event for him.
"Before that I participated in a project that documented the Jewish community in Slovakia," she says, "and I photographed 3,000 graves there. I felt a connection to it. I was approached by ultra-Orthodox families who are interested in sending pictures to relatives from abroad who can't come, and I was also approached by families with open minds who are interested in documentation and aesthetics."
Kapelushnik tries to be as inconspicuous as possible, and works from a distance with telescopic lenses. When mourners see her, they often raise an eyebrow, and she has already heard whisperings such as "Were they the ones who invited the photographer?"
The Hevra Kadisha (religious burial society) also offers ways of commemorating a funeral in real time, for the sake of people who can't come. The viewers can see the funeral via a Web site, online, or receive photographs on a disc.
The forevergreen.co.il site offers to take and send by email a photograph of the grave (to customers of the company, which operates in the southern region). Their Web site advertises gardening and maintenance of graves, for people who have difficulty getting there, but are interested in keeping the sites and gravestones in good condition. W