Circle of Life

There's just something about old cemeteries where generations of the same family are buried.

I'm one of those people who, when opening the morning paper, turns straight to the obituaries. That's where the best stories are sometimes hidden. I myself, together with my brother, once published a fairly eyebrow-raising obituary notice - how could a reader fail to be taken aback by an obituary in which a brother "and his children" but no wife, and a sister with the same last name "and her children" announce the deaths of their parents and grandparents?

Avi Ofer and Amos Biderman

But my interest in obituaries began long before I was forced to apologize to the woman in charge of handling the ads for "very belatedly" adding (since she complained ) my mother's name to the obituary notice for my father, unimpressed as she was by my explanations that it was no car accident, house fire or double suicide, but rather an incredible coincidence in which two people who were technically still married but hadn't seen one another for more than four years expired on the very same day from the most dreadful, prolonged illnesses.

When I was a kid, it was customary to compose obituary notices in the form of an acrostic, little poems in which the first letter of each line spells out the name of the deceased, sometimes with the addition of an honorific such as "noble soul" or "righteous woman." For years, I got a kick out of this style of poetry, which was also often used to convey pathos-laden sentiments and was much favored by people in the teaching profession. Typically, the verb would appear at the end of each line, since, thanks to the morphology of Hebrew conjugations, this took all the challenge out of rhyming. As in the following example: "To Yoni: You came to our school (higa'ta ) / And you touched our hearts (naga'ta ) / No one shone as bright as you (he'arta ) / Instantly our love you plucked (katafta )."

I sometimes imagine the same method being applied to create my own acrostic obituary:

Nice and pleasant were you /

Everyone will surely miss you /

Rail thin and so beautiful were you

In our eyes there are tears when we think of you.

Four brief lines that encapsulate the entire story of a well-rounded (but slim! ) and cherished woman who left her mark in her loved ones' hearts.

But obituaries of this kind are a thing of the past and so, to my regret, I am forced to make do with the standard obituaries in which such-and-such announce with great sorrow and/or terrible sadness the death of their dearly beloved at a ripe old age or in an untimely manner from a serious illness or... Come to think of it, I have never seen an obituary in which we were informed of someone's death from a trivial illness, unlike in that favorite joke that Dr. Kirson, our family doctor when I was young, used to tell every time I went in for a checkup: This Jew, Berl, runs into another Jew, Shmerl, and asks him how he's doing. Shmerl, looking morose, tells him, "My wife died." What did she die from? asks the horrified Berl. "The grippe" (the flu, in other words ). "Ah," Berl sighs with relief, "the grippe is nothing to worry about."

But even those standard obituaries are just the tip of the iceberg. Each name on the page represents a person and a life. "Look at this, a rich man just died," my father would declare contentedly whenever he saw a full-page obit notice in the paper. And what better indicator of the activity of that rich man, the organizations he gave to, the institutions on whose boards he served, and so on, than these ads and the names of the people who placed them? What is more intriguing than obituaries published separately by the deceased's children and by his wife, who is not their mother?

People who are completely foreign to us are revealed to us in their deaths. That is why I love to visit graveyards, especially abroad. With the exception of a few cemeteries like the one in Kinneret, or Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv, or my grandfather's family plot at the ruined Ottoman cemetery in Haifa, where his grandfather, father, cousins and their contemporaries are buried, there are very few cemeteries in Israel where the grave markers can tell you something about the passing of many generations of a single family. Not only that, but the urban cemeteries here are synthetic and charmless cities of the dead compared to the ones you find abroad, particularly in small towns but also in some of the big, old cities. These are enchanted places, lush with greenery, where the sometimes moss-covered gravestones have a captivating patina. But more important - how many cemeteries in Israel have graves going back more than two generations? How many of us know where our great-great-grandfathers are buried?

Once I found myself at the cemetery of Honfleur, in Normandy, trying to guess from the names on the gravestones which ones belonged to Jews. It was plain to see that for many generations no Jews had lived in this utterly lovely and incredibly boring resort town.

In a Christian cemetery in Sedgwick, Maine, there wasn't a single Jewish grave, naturally, but Abner Allen, son of the Reverend Jonah Allen, who drowned in 1819, aged 19 and seven months, was buried there alongside his father, uncles, siblings, nephews and nieces, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all the way up to the last Allen who was buried there in 1982. Which, of course, is the reason why this cemetery overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by blueberry bushes and tall pines, where the flower beds are filled with blooms and the modest markers are worn with age, is known as "the new cemetery." A few kilometers away is the old one, where this family's ancestors, and the members of other founding families of Sedgwick, Blue Hill and nearby Deer Island were buried in the 18th century.

There is still room at the new cemetery. The last funeral there was held in 2003, for Blanche Lish, who died at the age of 90. Seems there are some places where people just want to go on living forever.