Life & Culture

I didn't want a traditional headstone for my father's grave. But what was the alternative?

Writer Stephen Games reveals how he came up with a fitting solution, without breaching United Synagogue rules


The United Synagogue licenses only three firms of stone-masons to work in its cemeteries. Each has its own catalogue of headstones, but there is little to choose between them. You get single or double stones, mostly three or four feet high, in shiny Italian white marble or shiny Italian black granite, with either a flat plinth on the ground in the same material, or curbstones filled with coloured chippings.

Aesthetically, the designs seem unchanged since the 1930s. The favoured style is art deco, with stepped tops and cutaway corners, as if every monument had a secret wish to be not a gravestone but a Gaumont cinema.

The letters, sand-blasted through a plastic template and filled with lead (on the white marble stones) or gold paint (on the black granite), resemble the rolling credits of an MGM blockbuster.

After my father’s death a year ago, I struggled to accept what was on offer. It is true that art deco, at its birth, was good for the Jews: it embodied the novel idea that simple geometric shapes, easily tooled by machines, could be artistic.

It was symbolic, also, of modernity and freedom. Scan the furniture advertisements in the JC of the time — zig-zaggy cocktail cabinets and wardrobes with angular sunbursts — and you see how very much art deco meant to us then. Scan the acres of art deco slabs in our cemeteries and you see how much it means to us still.

The trouble is that art deco, however popular it may be, is a vulgar style. I happen not to like ornament and symbol, and nor did my father.

In addition, my father, who studied farming at Reading University after the war, was passionate about environmental responsibility. The idea that his remains should be marked by stone brought from half-way round the world, when we have perfectly good stone in this country, would have appalled him.

He did not care that there must be economies of scale in importing rock in huge quantities from abroad, any more than he approved of supermarkets importing vegetables out of season. He believed that resources should be sourced locally, no matter how much that limited one’s choice.

White marble and black granite are, in any case, alien to our landscape. Graves in the most beautiful country churchyards in England are of limestone and Welsh slate, which our masons no longer supply. And the most beautiful carving is done with a hammer and chisel, which the approved masons cannot do, which is why our lettering is sand-blasted, which then has to be coloured, because it is not deep enough to show up on its own.

For a while, I tried going along with the conventions. At the same time, I kept trying to compose a clever inscription and laying it out like a piece of graphic design. Then I realised what I was doing wrong: I was treating the design as if it was a page of text. It is not. A headstone is a marker in the ground, perhaps the earliest form of human announcement. It should not resemble a book. It should be what it is — a megalith or menhir. And the lettering should not resemble calligraphy or typography but something more primitive.

At that point, I stopped trying to love art deco and started looking for a sculptor. “Don’t waste your time,” people said. “The United Synagogue is immovable on things like this.” They were wrong.

I contacted the US Burial Society and asked exactly what they wanted. Four things, they said. The initials pay nun (for “here lies”), the name of the deceased in Hebrew, the Hebrew date of death, and either the five-letter acronym taf nun tsadiy bet hay (“may his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life”) or the word shalom. That was it.

I then contacted the very excellent head of burials, Melvyn Hartog, for technical details on how headstones are installed, and to ask whether there were any halachic objections to doing without a ledger at the base and to employing an independent sculptor.

He was neutral about who cut the stone as long as the sculptor worked alongside one of the three licensed firms, and raised no objection to the area above the grave being marked just by curbstones.

What followed was exhausting but relatively straightforward: finding the right artist, selecting a suitable stone, deciding what shape the stone should be, reducing the number of words to a minimum, and determining an appropriate style of lettering.

Luckily I discovered the wonderful Lois Anderson, a Scottish sculptor working in London. She recommended a grey Caithness sandstone, which looks very much like slate, and we agreed that the face should be rough and not polished.

I then researched simple, gestural English and Hebrew letter-forms. I wanted shapes that matched each other, were suited to the movement of the chisel, and did not have the flavour of fonts designed for print.

Lois responded brilliantly. In spite of having never carved Hebrew before, she loved learning the nuances of our writing and got results that are almost biblical.

I am delighted. As for my father, he would have been glad we did not have to pillage the Apennines and that the amount of stone laid on top of him was minimal. Instead of a plinth, the space inside the curbstones has been filled with loose earth, on which we scattered wildflower seeds after the consecration.

Having said that the United Synagogue’s approved firms were limited in their choice of designs, I wish to pay tribute to the two I initially went to for help and the one I eventually worked with to get the stone set. They were wonderfully supportive throughout.

Only one thing worried them about the design — that rabbits, the plague of British cemeteries, might burrow into the soil inside the curbstones and colonise it.

At first, I suggested laying a metal mesh below the soil, then decided to let nature take its course. The idea of his grave becoming a warren to little bunnies would have pleased my father no end. And so, after so much art deco, we’ve ended up with “art eco”. It’s a step back and a step forward all at the same time.

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