Near Here Are Buried British Soldiers
On June 5 through 7, Kavod v’Nichum held its 14th annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference in Lexington, MA. Just up the street from where we stayed was the Minute Man National Historic Park, so of course I took some time to walk the trail there, which includes the spot where Paul Revere was captured by the British during his famous midnight ride in 1775.
Along the trail was a rock with a plaque that reads, “Near Here Are Buried British Soldiers,” with a British flag planted in the ground nearby.
The message this marker conveys particularly struck me for two reasons. First, I was attending the chevrah kadisha conference, so Jewish death practices were on the top of my mind; and second, when we study Torah and related texts, which we do at the conference, we ask questions not only about the words of the text but also about what is left out of the text.
It struck me that volumes of questions arise regarding what is left out of the plaque on this rock. There are the obvious, surface questions, such as the following:
· How many British soldiers are buried near here?
· Does anyone know where, exactly, they are buried?
· Does anyone know their names?
· Did other British soldiers bury them, or did local people bury them?
I noticed there were no similar stones for local soldiers. Presumably the bodies of the local soldiers were returned to their family for burial.
But what of these British soldiers? They, like all of us, were created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and each human body is a sacred vessel. Were their bodies lovingly washed and dressed for burial? Were coffins fashioned for them? Were words of comfort or mourning read over them as they were lowered into the ground? Given the circumstances of battle, probably not.
This lead me to think further about the men themselves. These were, presumably, young men who boarded a ship to take a journey of seven weeks or more across the Atlantic to fight a war on a continent most of them had never seen before, and likely never expected to visit. Each of these men hoped to return home in victory, but instead they died, alone, in a largely unknown land.
It’s my understanding that “dog tags” identifying soldiers weren’t in regular use until after the Civil War in the late 1800’s, so many dead soldiers went unidentified before then. Therefore, regardless of who buried these soldiers, most likely they remained unnamed. As a result, in many cases the British would have no way to know whether missing soldiers were wounded, dead, or, perhaps, deserters.
Can you imagine being one of these soldiers, so very far from home, knowing you’re about to die, and wishing, without hope, there were some way to let your family know what was happening to you? To spare them the agony of not knowing?
Can you imagine being a parent or sibling of a British soldier who was sent to fight in this war while you waited anxiously at home? Eventually, months later, you get word that your loved one is missing, but nobody knows what happened. You wait, perhaps the rest of your life, hoping some word will arrive, in the form of a letter or the person himself, confirming that he is still alive, but no such word ever comes. Unless a survivor who knew him saw him die and gets word to you, you will spend the rest of your life in limbo, not knowing whether he is dead or alive, not knowing whether or when to mourn, not having any body to bury.
This stone, declaring, “Near Here Are Buried British Soldiers” is so easy to glance at and pass by all unthinking, but unwritten on this stone are uncounted stories of loss and anguish and grief. Unwritten on this stone is the opposite of what those of us at the conference are trying so hard to achieve, namely the assurance that each body will be treated with dignity and honor before it is buried in the earth. Unwritten on this stone are the names of those buried, or the names of those who suffered the rest of their lives yearning for word of them.
May the memory of all of them be a blessing for generations to come, and may no person pass by this stone without taking a moment to truly consider the human pain and suffering it represents.
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
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Gamliel Institute Course 5, Chevrah Kadisha Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy (RPL) will be offered over twelve weeks from September 6th, 2016 to November 22nd 2016. There will be an orientation session on September 5th for those unfamiliar with the online course platform used, and/or who have not used an online webinar/class presentation tool in past.
The focus of this course is on practices and all ritual and liturgy (excluding Taharah & Shmirah, which are covered in Course 2). This deals specifically with ritual and practice towards and at the end of life, the moment of death, preparation for the funeral, the funeral, and rituals of mourning and remembrance. This course also includes modules dealing with Funeral Homes and Cemeteries.
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