Irish poet and former priest, John O’Donahue, used the word “threshold” to describe a transition from one life moment to another. He wrote that “to acknowledge and cross a threshold is always a challenge…. this is one of the reasons that such vital crossings were always clothed in ritual.”
A few weeks ago, my family and I made the journey to Minneapolis for the unveiling of my dad, Moses Schanfield. There is a custom in Judaism of waiting until around a year after the deceased has been buried to have an unveiling ceremony, at which point a gravestone is erected. This tradition dates back to antiquity when people were buried in caves and later their bones were transferred to ancestral burial grounds.
My dad died in January 2021 and, at the time, it did not feel safe for us to travel with the pandemic, plus the funeral was going to be held on Zoom regardless of if we were in person or not. Due to the pandemic, supply chain shortages, and schedules, we ended up holding the ceremony almost a year and a half after my dad died. By this point, the acute grief and shock I experienced at the funeral had passed. I viewed the unveiling as an opportunity to be in person with family and as a celebration of completing my hard work serving as the executor of my dad’s estate. It turned out that the ceremony had a much bigger impact on me than I expected, reminding me of the importance of ritual in transitions.
The content of an unveiling ceremony is very minimal and I often get asked if someone who isn’t a rabbi can lead an unveiling. The answer is, like almost everything in Judaism, you don’t need a rabbi for an unveiling. At my dad’s unveiling, I chose to be just a daughter, a participant, and not the rabbi, while my friend, Rabbi Aaron Weininger officiated. What had not occurred to me until this experience was that, though anyone can say the liturgy of an unveiling, it does take some level of skill to create a sacred container in time, where people can be present in the moment, while also sharing memories of their departed loved one. Surrounded by readings and prayers, Rabbi Weininger gave family members an opportunity to share memories of my dad. Stories were told that allowed us to remember just how special and idiosyncratic my dad was. Everyone present smiled and laughed.
One of the names of a graveyard in Judaism is Beit Chayim, the house of the living. While I didn’t realize that I needed it beforehand, the unveiling helped me take the final step from grieving back into living. I left the cemetery with tears in my eyes and an uplifted heart.
Every day we encounter moments of transition. Judaism has rituals for most of these moments, though certainly not all. If you are experiencing a moment of transition that might benefit from a ritual to help you cross the threshold, please reach out to the rabbinic team.
By Rabbi Amanda Shwartz