Rabbi I Have a Problem

Can we put a limerick on our father's tombstone?

Rabbi, I have a problem


Question: When we wanted to erect a headstone for our father, we wanted to include a favourite limerick of his. It was humorous but certainly not rude. However, the burial society told us it would be inappropriate - were they being over-officious?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

It is difficult to give you a precise answer without knowing the nature of the limerick but it is more than likely that the burial society was not being unnecessarily restrictive. What might seem innocuous to one, may be offensive to another.

The thing to remember is that a cemetery is a shared space. The choices we make regarding inscriptions on headstones can never entirely be a private matter as they remain indefinitely in full view of other grieving families. What the burial society tries to ensure is an acceptable and uniform degree of dignity and good taste. Sometimes it errs on the side of caution but no one was ever adversely affected by understatement.

Far more appropriate than humorous limericks is the profundity and beauty contained in biblical passages, such as in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Psalms. These timeless passages not only convey wisdom but also link the deceased's memory with the Torah of Life.

Digressing slightly, I'd like to comment on a phenomenon which I have been observing for years - an obsession with cramming on to the tombstone the names of as many living relatives as possible.

In old cemeteries, particularly in central and Eastern Europe, hardly any tombstone records the progeny of the deceased. The only names on the stone are that of the deceased, the deceased's parents and occasionally a spouse. This is still the practice among Charedim. Yet in non-Charedi cemeteries in this country, many tombstones are filled with the names of children, sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Often there is simply not enough room on the headstone and so additional plaques are erected at the foot of the grave to accommodate grandchildren.

While not intrinsically wrong, there is something about this practice that always disturbed me. Aside from the pragmatic problem of what to do when the names of couples etched in stone are no longer together, there is something fundamentally unsuitable about having a living person's name etched on a tombstone. I don't mean this in a superstitious sense but rather in a symbolic one. Life represents endless possibilities - opportunities to develop and grow, the prospect of changing course and direction.

Nothing in life is fixed until one's last breath. At that moment all that will ever be has been and one's name is etched in stone. We will all eventually arrive at that point, why seize it prematurely?

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

What goes on a tombstone is a particularly vexed issue because it crosses so many competing boundaries: the emotional and the factual, the personal and the public.

Two stress-tests need to be applied. The first is that the inscription has to stand the passage of time. Will a limerick, or any other cute phrasing that seems appropriate when first thought up, seem depressingly silly in future, or will it retain its power to bring a warm smile of recognition? Likewise, it is important to be careful with dramatic promises. Putting "I will never love another man" could prove embarrassing if, against expectation, you remarry.

Omissions can be just as bad, such as leaving off the name of a family member because of a dispute that later becomes resolved. It is always better to err on the side of generosity and be inclusive.

The second consideration is that intensely personal inscriptions are open to the public gaze and you do not want passers-by to laugh in derision. Thus "My little inchy-pinchy poo" carries a high cringe factor, however much it was a loving exchange between husband and wife.

Distortions and cover-ups should also be avoided. "A wonderful man" is simply not suitable for someone who frequently shouted at his wife or bullied his children. In such situations, omit false praise, just record the person's name and let memory be their judgement.

There is also no need to put a genealogical table on the stone, showing who is the in-crowd, akin to a list of sponsors. A discreet "Much mourned by family and friends" can speak far more elegantly.

The ideal text should be one that is unique to that individual, not a platitude, however pious. It should remind mourners of the essence of the person and make strangers wish they had known him or her. If a quotation from a Jewish text fits, then it can be an enriching addition, but an ill-fitting one is best left out.

An emblem carved on a stone can be another way of reflecting character, be it a book for a lover of literature or a rose for a keen gardener.

A custom that has arisen in some circles is to have a photograph of the person; it can be very touching, though it also freezes their memory to one particular stage in their life rather than its entirety.

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