Calgary Chevra Kadisha: What should I know before visiting the cemetery?

by Harold Lipton and Susan Dvorkin

(Calgary) – Many of us will visit the graves of our deceased loved ones at various times.  Some of these times are: after the conclusion of shiva (seven days of mourning after a passing), after the conclusion of shloshim (first thirty days of mourning after a passing), on the anniversary of the passing (yahrzeit), before Yom Kippur (Kever Avot), and around the times the memorial service (Yizkor) is recited in the synagogue.

(Drive-in gates are open at Chevra Kadisha 37 Street cemetery in Calgary Sunday through Friday 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.  Access to Erlton Cemetery and after hours at 37 Street is though the walk-in gates.  Call 403-244-4717 for access codes.  The chapel is closed right now due to pandemic restrictions.)

There are certain days when one should not visit a grave.  These include Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh (start of a new month on the lunar calendar), during Chanukah, and on major Festivals of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot (including the intermediate days of Chol Hamo’ed).  Chevra Kadisha cemetery gates are closed on these days.

There are certain memorial prayers and Psalms that can be said when visiting a cemetery, but did you know that there are various other customs governing cemetery visitation?

Judaism puts a heavy emphasis on being respectful of the dead (Kibud Ha’met).  From the time of one’s passing, to the funeral, and even after, we follow certain traditions that are focussed on maintaining this respect.  This includes those occasions when we visit the cemetery.  Here are some of those traditions.

When walking around a cemetery, one should never walk on top of a grave, but only around it.  That is one reason why many graves are clearly marked with a headstone and a border or covering.

One should behave at a cemetery very much like when attending synagogue.  Dress should be modest and tasteful.  Food and drink should not be brought into the cemetery.  Playing music is forbidden.   Frivolous conversation, especially when attending a funeral, should be avoided out of the belief that the soul of the departed is hovering among us until burial.  Men should have their heads covered, as do observant women.

One should avoid shaming the deceased by refraining from certain practices in the cemetery that the deceased cannot do.  For example, recitation of daily services, reading from the Torah, or wearing tefillin is avoided.  Social visitation should not take place within the confines of a cemetery.  There are special prayers that can be said during a cemetery visit.  Saying them in Hebrew is preferred if one can, but it is also acceptable to recite those prayers in English.  Either way, it should be remembered that while we are praying on behalf of our departed, all prayer is directed to Hashem.

Small stones should be placed on top of the grave to symbolize that the deceased has not been forgotten.  The custom of placing flowers on a grave site is not typically done in the diaspora to distinguish our practices from non-Jewish ones.  Many cemeteries discourage placing objects on gravesites because they pose a risk to groundskeepers and their equipment.

It is very common to make donations to charity in the name of the deceased, especially on the occasions mentioned earlier.  There are various reasons for this including perpetuating and honouring the name of the deceased in this world, and aiding the soul in its journey in the next world.

Another tradition in honouring the deceased that is followed by some is to keep one’s focus on the purpose of the visit to the cemetery.  If one is attending a funeral, the focus should be on the obligation to escort the deceased to proper burial.  In this regard, one should avoid combining reasons for visiting a cemetery.  When attending a funeral, if one wants to also visit other gravesites, one should do so either before or after the burial, exit the cemetery and then re-enter.  There are various explanations for this, such as honouring the deceased by not diminishing our reason for coming to the cemetery.  Some say this also respects that other deceased people are also mourning the newly deceased person.

Authorities advise us to avoid the extremes of never visiting the graves of our loved ones, or visiting too often.  Mourners should judge for themselves how best to remember and honour the departed, but it is also important to resume the process of living.

The Chevra Kadisha wishes everyone a healthy and happy upcoming New Year, free from sorrow.


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