The sun breaks through the clouds right on cue as I push through the cemetery gate.
I feel its warmth on the back of my head as if it’s the light touch of my mother’s palm, welcoming me in, reminding me how much she loved the sun and making me wonder if she basks in it still.
As I stand before her stone and recite the beautiful psalms, the trap door of pent-up emotion releases and the tears begin to fall. For me, there is no place quite like it.
Here, by her grave, away from the noise and demands of the outside world, I can think of her, talk to her and ask her for guidance, no Whatsapp messages bleeping, no sons pleading for a glass of milk or to come and play football.
At that moment, it is a space carved out just for us; mother and daughter; a relationship that moved from the physical to the spiritual two years ago and yet one I still cherish and find incredibly cathartic.
Sometimes I kneel and caress the corner of the stone, feeling the smoothness of the marble beneath my fingertips and imagine it is her face I am stroking, her eyes on mine, smouldering with parental love. I sigh with longing. I might even sob. When I leave, I wash my hands – as is the custom – feeling drained of emotion but lighter and happier.
I know my mother is not there really and her soul (I like to believe) is nestling amongst the angels, but visiting her Matsevah – her stone – provides me with a deep sense of comfort and connection.
It is odd when I think about it. A cemetery is full of dead people, always depicted in films and books as grey and damp and littered with ghouls. A tombstone too is cold and concrete while my mother was warm and vibrant, fizzing with energy and spirit.
But it’s the weightiness and solidity of the stone I like. Here was a life of substance, it says; a spiritual and physical one.
As Jews, the emphasis is always on the Neshama, our inner soul, rather than our outer casing of flesh and bones, but according to Rabbi Baruch Levin of London’s Brondesbury Park synagogue, while we may connect with the souls of our loved ones anywhere and everywhere, the place of burial is extremely important.
‘When a person passes on their physical footprint is no longer present in the universe so we want to add a measure of permanence to their existence,’ he explains. ‘While the soul is no longer tied to that space, the grave is spiritually significant as this is where their remains have been deposited.’
A grave also contains the all-important luz bone – a miniscule indestructible bone in the upper spine – which, according to Jewish belief, will trigger the reconstruction of the entire body when the Moshiach comes and the dead are resurrected.
Until that time, however, it is simply a place for those of us left behind to remember and reflect, especially around this auspicious period of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when many traditionally visit and are thinking about their fate for the year ahead and may even want a loved one to intercede on their behalf, being closer to Him, so to speak.
‘Sure, you can ask them to pray on your behalf and you can only hope they’re a good asker,’ says Rabbi Levin.
But the Rabbi has a hefty caveat when it comes to visiting a grave too often: ‘Judaism wants us to deal with the grief and then live life. I remember going to a cemetery and seeing an elderly man who had set up a bench opposite his wife’s grave and I was told he visited her every day except Shabbat. I looked at this man and it was such a terrible, sad sight to behold and so devoid of life. This is not what Judaism wants. Visiting periodically, maybe a couple of times of year before the big Yom Tovs is fine, but we are all about living life.’
I get this. When the iron gate of the cemetery shuts behind me, I feel an urgency to engage with the world; to fold my arms around my sons, switch on my phone and head back into the whirlwind of play dates, deadlines and nights out.
We live with our loss, but the point is we live.