I visited a local Jewish cemetery today and I placed some stones on one of the graves: it is one of my favourite Jewish customs.
There are a variety of understood reasons for the tradition, but the purpose seems intuitive rather than rational. Pebbles and rocks are sturdy, weatherproof, solid, heavy. By placing one on your grave I am marking my respect in a tangible way, I am adding to the monument of your life, I am letting future visitors know that you have been acknowledged by me.
(Henrietta Moses died at age 13 in 1853, around the time when the Jewish population was at its largest in Tasmania).
The cemetery at Cornelian Bay is located on land that was once government farmland, and it has been used as a burial ground (on and off) since 1872. Many of Hobart’s original cemeteries became health hazards because it wasn’t possible to dig deeply enough into the rocky earth to make suitable graves.
I gather that the old Jewish cemetery, used from 1828 to 1871, had a block of apartments built upon it but was exhumed in its entirety once the building was demolished. The human remains and some salvaged head stones have been reinterred at Cornelian Bay and a lovely garden space has been created as a memorial.
I wasn’t able to linger long over the graves today, but I did reflect upon the contribution of these long-ago people to the development and culture of the place that I now call home. There were Jewish convicts and free settlers in Tasmania, and the plaques in the cemetery dedicated to infants are a stark reminder of the harsh conditions in which these people attempted to raise families. Meanwhile, one of the plaques names 89-year-old Sarah Moses, who died in 1861; she must have been one tough cookie.
Having been at this place and thinking about these things today, I was particularly struck when my husband received news this afternoon of a family member’s pregnancy, while another beloved relative is very near death.
The cycle of life and death is a mystical, but somehow also very ordinary, thing. All we can do is roll with it.