On the first beautiful Sunday in spring, when the air was crisp and the sky deep blue, my parents and grandparents would bundle us off to the family cemetery to pay our respects. They had gathered fresh-cut flowers from my grandmother’s garden, and I remember my grandmother wearing a hat and white gloves.
It was on these trips that they taught us our family history. This was your great-grandfather. Here is the child who died of the influenza. No one could bake biscuits like your great-grandmother, my grandmother would lament — the recipe had passed on with her.
But we moved away and those visits grew less frequent. As an adult, I have gone back twice, each time instinctively feeling my way to the cemetery with only my childhood memories to guide me. It moved me to be there again and to reconnect with those I knew only from the stories, and the ones who were so much a part of my growing up.
Rachel Barenblat is Jewish and writes at Velveteen Rabbi and Radical Torah. She uses Genesis 47:28-31 as a launching point for some thoughts about the importance of preserving our family stories. Jacob is dying, and he makes his son, Joseph, promise not to leave his body buried in Egypt.
Joseph honors his father’s wish and later makes a similar request of his own when he asks that his bones be carried to the promised land. It is a request that foreshadows God’s faithfulness to Israel. But why did Joseph make such a request? Barenblat says:
Surely Joseph impressed his instruction upon his descendants because he wanted to be brought out of Egypt. But maybe … he didn’t want them to suffer the sadness of being distant from their history. If they had left their ancestors’ bones behind, that would have been just one more excuse for them to bemoan their departure, to wish they had never left. … Carrying his bones allowed them to feel they were bringing their history — their story — with them on the journey toward unknown freedom.
Then she connects this observation to us:
In a world of increased mobility, where we may live too far-away to visit and venerate our ancestors’ burial-places, we have to find other ways of carrying them with us.
For Barenblat, “carrying our bones” means keeping photographs of her ancestors nearby and cherishing their memories, and the memorabilia they have passed along to her.
It seems to me that some of our modern spiritual emptiness may be rooted in our failure to maintain those powerful, emotional connections to our past, our personal history.
After reminding his readers of the faith stories of a great many men and women, the writer of Hebrews begins chapter 12 by saying that we do not live our lives in isolation. We are surrounded in our life of faith by a huge crowd of witnesses, God’s faithful of every generation, and they are part of our story, too.
Go read Rachel’s excellent post, Carrying our bones, and ask yourself if you’ve done enough to respect the connections to your history — your story.
Image credit: Louisiana State University archives
Update: I got into a brief discussion with a friend who read this post on the issue of cremation vs. burial. Matthew at Mere Orthodoxy pointed me towards an excellent article on the subject in the latest issue of Touchstone online. Go read Grave Signs by Russell Moore for a reasoned discussion of the issue and what burial signifies in the Christian context. Thanks Matthew.
I’m pleased that my post about Jacob and Joseph’s bones, and the implications of their requests to have their bones carried out of Egypt, resonated so much for you.
Thank you for sharing some of your own story, about visiting family graves at the beginning of spring. And thanks for the kind words.
You know, Charlie, you don’t post as often as I’d like. But when you do, it sure is worth waiting for.
This one touches on something deep for me. I have learned ways to “carry the bones” – even though there are gaps in the history. Fantastic post!