Our encounters with people who die alone, leaving few, if any, relatives or friends are among the most heartbreaking situations encountered by those of us at Hebrew Free Burial Association.
Daily, we hear about people who die alone in nursing homes, hospitals and apartments. We have even had cases where people have passed away on the street, in the subway and in abandoned cars. These unfortunate, lonely people are provided a dignified Jewish burial by our organization in Mount Richmond Cemetery on Staten Island.
Prior to 2010, these burials were attended only by our rabbi and the cemetery's gravediggers. However, over the last two years, a volunteer quorum (minyan) of local residents has been assembling for each funeral, giving some of their valuable time to bear witness to the importance of each life, no matter how lonely, and to recite the Jewish prayers for the deceased.
But what happens after that? If we work so hard to provide a dignified burial for "the forgotten," we also need to memorialize these lives after they are over. No one should lie in an unmarked grave, their name lost to time.
For 20 years, Hebrew Free Burial Association's Leave Your Mark campaign has raised funds to erect small headstones for each grave in our cemetery, with the name and year of birth and death, memorializing the person who lies beneath. In the spirit of the highest form of charity in the Jewish tradition, in which neither the giver nor the recipient knows the identity of the other, the donor does not know whose grave he has marked. And in the spirit of chesed shel emet, true loving kindness, the donor cannot be thanked, nor his act of generosity ever be reciprocated.
More than 15,000 graves have been marked. Once each year, in late summer, a large delivery truck arrives with a year's worth of donated stones and the unloading and setting of the grave markers begins in time for the Jewish New Year. This past year, close to 300 generous donors contributed toward marking our continuous list of unmarked graves.
In less than a week, the Jewish new year begins with the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As Jews look both forward and back, it is customary to visit the graves of our loved ones. We recall friends and family who shaped out lives, loved and nurtured us. Remembering where we came from, and those who shared our life's journey, often helps us as we contemplate where we are, where we have been and where we are going.
And by acknowledging the lives of those we didn't know, by marking their graves, we give them the respect of forever being remembered as a member of the Jewish community.