Traditional Reasons for Visiting the Cemetery
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said: "When a person prays at the graves of tzaddikim, God does favors for him even if he doesn't deserve them" (Sefer Hamidot).
Our Rabbis said: "Why do people go to graveyards? So that the dead may plead for compassion upon us." (Taanit 23a).
Why Limit Visits?
The details of Jewish mourning are numerous, in part, to curb excessive mourning after the designated periods of shiva, shloshim, and the mourning year are over. Judaism asks the mourner to concentrate on reestablishing a bond with life, which is hard enough without frequent cemetery visits. The dead are venerated when survivors live lives of active goodness.
Survivors visit on the yahrzeit, - death anniversary, at the end of the shloshim period, and others go immediately after shiva. (There is another custom to refrain from visiting until the first 30 days of mourning are completed.)
Brides and grooms visit a parent’s grave before getting married.
Solemn days in the Jewish calendar are appropriate times to go to the cemetery. Some visit before Rosh Hashannah. Others go on Tisha B’Av, when the entire Jewish People mourn various monstrous moments in our history. Still others plan to go before the first days of the month of Nissan or just before the month of Elul, a month which falls out just before Rosh Hashannah and is a time of repentance.
When Not to Visit the Cemetery Days of Happiness
As much as there are obligations, mitzvoth, to mourn, there are mitzvoth to feel joy. Judaism does not shy away from commanding emotion. For instance, Jews are commanded to love God. Joy is expected on various days on the Jewish calendar. We don’t pay a cemetery visit during joyful days like Purim and Chol Hamoed, the intermediary days of Passover and Sukkot.
Some have the custom not to visit on Rosh Chodesh - the mini-holiday that welcomes each new Jewish month; Chanukah; the afternoon before Purim begins; the entire month of Nissan; and Lag B’Omer, a joyous day interrupting the mourning period between Passover and Shavuout.
Exceptions to These Customs
Relatives who have come from far distances do not need to miss visiting the cemetery because of these customs. Nor do spouses who wish to visit before remarrying. But on joyous days, some rabbis advise cemetery visitors to not say the El Maleh Rachamim prayer. Tehilllim and Kaddish are fine.
Prayers and Blessings Recited At the Cemetery
Cemetery visits stir feelings of loss and sorrow. The blessing said during a visit, if 30 days have elapsed since the last visit, speaks to the pain by reminding the mourner of God’s inscrutable judgment and comforts with a reference to the eventual resurrection of the dead.
Rabbi Dr. Maurice Lamm, in his book The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, translates this blessing with these words: “Praised be God who created you in judgment, who maintained and sustained you in judgment and brought death upon you in judgment, who knows the dead and everyone of you in judgment. Praised be the Eternal who will restore life to the dead.”
El Maleh Rachamim and Other Options
A visit may evoke words of Psalms or the El Maleh Rachamim memorial prayer. Learning some Torah at a gravesite, a mishnah, a section from the Talmud, for example is a nice gesture. Or read lines of the long acrostic Psalm 119 that spell out the Hebrew name of the deceased. There is a tradition to specify the intent of the words by resting a hand on the grave marker. Remember: all prayers are directed at God not at the deceased. In Judaism there are no intermediaries who carry prayers to God.
Sephardic liturgy’s Hashkaba prayer is said in hope of a peaceful rest for the departed. This psalm expresses loyalty to the word of God and hope for salvation. The words that come to mind are also prayers if only written in the prayer book of the heart.
What to Do At the CemeteryLeaving Pebbles
Where other mourners place flowers, Jews lay pebbles. This custom has murky origins, but it is a sure way to leave evidence of a gravesite visit, one that will not wilt or blow away. Some attribute the custom to the ancient practice of covering a grave with stones. More stones would be added as time passed to keep the grave covered. Placing a pebble on the grave demonstrates care that extends beyond death.
In Biblical times, when an unknown corpse was found and buried, the town leaders would perform a ceremony which included a hand washing ritual. The hand washing demonstrated their clean conscience and was a sort of proclamation that the town elders took no part in causing the death.
Ritual washing is not done for hygienic reasons. Spiritual impurity, in Jewish thought, stems from an absence of life and finds no more potent form than in associating with the dead.
Transitions in Jewish life are often accompanied by water. A body is bathed in a poignant, dignified ceremony before burial. Jews-by-choice mark their entry into the Jewish people by immersing themselves in water at the mikva. Similarly, hands are washed after a cemetery visit to mark the departure from the surroundings of death and to signify a renewed attachment with life. Washing stations are often set up outside of the cemetery for this purpose
Pulling up a blade or two of grass before leaving the cemetery represents a prayer for the resurrection of the dead, when the dead will sprout from the ground like grass, in the Messianic age.
Basic respect should be shown. Eating and yelling are out of place. Try not to step on graves.