Most all of us hold life to be precious. It is, if nothing else, instinct to try to preserve our own lives. We also tend to value the lives of those we know, and especially those we care for. When life ends, here below, we often memorialise it. We establish cemeteries, and mark “resting places” with stones to keep the name and memory of our departed “alive.”
Why stone? It lasts. Wooden markers are nearly as temporal as the remains they mark, and while they have been used, they are often replaced with more “permanent” stones. This is not all that is left in such places, however. In Western society flowers, a symbol of love, beauty (and yes transience), are also common at grave sites. But such tokens shrivel, and are easily blown away. The people of Israel are a desert people, as well as the people of promise. Many Jews shy from flowers for the reasons above, and instead leave a small stone on graves. There are several reasons for the practice. In a desert burial – to place an additional stone on a grave shows respect to and protection of the remains. It also is a mark that one’s thoughts and vigil at the grave that will not easily vanish (like flowers).
Memorial is important, as we see that with the memory of a life, that life continues to have resonance. That is why we also build memorials other than grave sites. We even establish days of remembrance such as Memorial Day and Armistice Sunday. January 27th is one such day. It is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It marks the murder of some 6 million people in an unprecedented genocide.
But how do we act at funerals, gravesides and memorials? Increasingly cultural appreciation of life is waning. It is evident in the “me” focus of life. “I matter, you don’t.” You only need visit a cemetery to see the beer cans left by party-ers, who found the quiet unsupervised grounds “inviting.” The graffiti on public memorials to war dead. And, the tourist selfies taken at Holocaust death sites. These I find especially troubling, as they are not photos of sorrow, and shared loss, but self-indulgent displays of “the me.” [see yolocaust.de but be warned it is graphic and disturbing]. Similarly, I remember visiting the Ravensbrück memorial in Amsterdam and seeing that a local school had used the memorial as a storage space for their coats and lunch boxes while the students conducted a sports day on the nearby green. I have also seen the granite slab around Ghent memorial is Belgium used as a tent pitch by the homeless.
When we abuse to memories of life, I worry we will soon devalue life itself. Life is a gift; in Genesis 2:7 God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Let’s not cast gifts of love aside.