Kindness, whether one follows a particular faith or creed or not, is regarded as an essential human virtue, and acts of kindness – whether large or small – help strengthen the fabric that binds our lives to those of others. While no one has a monopoly on kindness, one of the primary virtues of Judaism is that of Chesed – usually and roughly translated as ‘loving-kindness’. It is through such acts of love and kindness that one engages in and contributes to Tikun Olam ‘repairing the world’.
A few years ago I witnessed at close hand a great act of both loving-kindness and determination that helped to repair someone’s world.
There is a double sadness behind this story. A good friend of ours was in the final stages of terminal cancer. We had known her, her husband and their family for a long time, and one of their sons and our son were the best of friends. She was at home, surrounded by her family, who were dealing with the terrible situation as best they can.
As is so often the case when individuals are facing the end of their life, there was an unfinished life event that Esther (not her real name) wanted to resolve in order to soothe her own passing and comfort her family.
The gaping hole in her life was that her first child, a baby boy, died at birth nearly thirty years ago. As was common in those days the baby was immediately taken away and buried in an unmarked grave, in this case in one of the several Jewish cemeteries in the city where we live. Our friends got on and carried on with their lives as best they could amidst a profound, silent grief, and very little if anything was ever said.
Now, as the end of her own life approached, Esther wanted that chasm in her life and the life of her family to be filled with knowing not only where their son and brother was buried, but also to mark his grave in a way that told the world that he lived, though very briefly, is loved, and is remembered.
We became involved in that poignant quest not just because they were close friends but also that we, too, are bereaved parents, and that our baby son also died at birth, in 1990. Unlike our friends, however, we have the comfort of being able to visit his grave whenever we so choose. For a number of years, it being a new cemetery, his grave stood alone in what was the designated ‘children’s section’, out by the cemetery fence and separated a long way from the ‘adult’ section. Now, sadly, there are three small graves in that section. But all are visited regularly and cared for.
Since our son’s death, we – and particularly my wife Jo – have been involved in Sands, the UK charity that supports those whose babies have died: either still-born or soon after birth. Jo promised Esther that she would do everything she could to provide her with the information that she so desperately wanted.
At first it didn’t seem hopeful. Though Jo had the baby’s name, the date he died and the name of the cemetery, there seemed to be no record. Eventually there was a breakthrough when she realised that the cemetery that our friends have, for 27 years, believed to be the one where their baby son was buried was not the right one. Slowly but surely, after hours of trawling online through various official registers and documents concerned with death and burial, and various telephone conversations with various official and unofficial organisations, Jo managed to identify the location of David’s grave. (David is not his real name, but he has a real name, and that’s important because he is no longer an anonymous ‘Baby – deceased’
Once Jo had identified the general location, the next task was to obtain confirmation of the precise location amongst the graves of other babies and young children, and to get a small gravestone made and erected as soon as possible. After some more detective work and once she was absolutely certain of the precise location, Jo rang the main Jewish burial organisation. When she had explained what she was doing and why she was doing it, the phone at the other end was passed to the head of the Beth Din – the Jewish religious authority.
Jo again explained the background to her quest and the fact that Esther did not have much time left. Once the Rabbi was assured that everything about the circumstances, identification and location was correct, he said that it must and will be done as quickly as possible. He added that all the administrative costs would be borne by the Beth Din as an act of Chesed, and a tiny but important rent in the fabric of the world was well on the way to being repaired.
Having finally identified and confirmed the precise location of David’s grave, Jo spent a few hours trying to arrange for a gravestone to be made and set in place. After the local stonemasons who had been recommended didn’t work out, in desperation she rang the stonemasons who had made the gravestone for our own baby. The woman who answered the phone turned out to be the daughter of the woman we had dealt with twenty seven years ago when our own baby died. Responding to the urgency of the situation she said that there was a small, spare piece of black marble in their workshop, in perfect condition, that would be ideal, and that as soon as they received the details of what to put on the stone they would start work.
Just four days later, Jo received an email, with photographs, showing the stone – beautifully engraved in Hebrew and English – set in place and marking David’s resting place.
Esther departed this world knowing that a large wound in her life had been healed, and the family – amidst the sadness and sorrow – found great comfort in knowing not only where their son and brother lay, but also that there are kindnesses that do, indeed, repair the world.