My family’s history has always been a murmur in my life, with many stories woven through it about people I never knew, but recently–maybe by just moving to Chicago–I’ve become much more interested in the family history.
One side of my family came to Chicago when they immigrated to America. Two generations later, when my grandfather was around five, his grandfather, Louis Karp, took him to a plot of land far away from downtown. It was way out in farmland, with barely a building in site. He took him to a new graveyard, to buy a family plot. When my great-great-grandfather bought his plot, it was known as Rosemount Gardens. There were no graves there yet. Walking through what is now known as Zion Gardens Cemetery, it seems like there are no spots left. There is even a gravestone that is partially sticking out from under a bush, either forgotten, or perhaps crammed into the last space available. Although my friend Jude and I had to take a 25 minute Uber there, it wasn’t as hard to get there as it was when the plot was originally bought, because it was way out in the country. It is now surrounded by homes and stores in every direction.
The Hebrew letters and stars of David on many graves shows a cultural heritage embedded in the stones. I feel guilty that I have only been here once before and that was years ago–perhaps it is the Jewish grandmothers subconsciously guilt-tripping me from beyond the grave. Some of the graves of other families have locket-like contraptions on top of the stones that hold pictures of the people buried below. The headstone to the ‘Leon’ family has a font that looks like the font for a pizza place or bar. It made me think, who decides the font? Are there a lot to choose from? Some of the gravestones are wrapped with ‘CAUTION’ tape, as if some post-mortem crime disturbed the resting of the ones below.
I brushed off dirt and leaves from the graves on my family’s plot and stood the plastic flowers back up where they had fallen down. I noticed dirt still clinging to my hands later and I had a moment of horror, wondering if there was any way that that dirt was mixed with any remnants of my ancestors. Most of the people on our plot had died decades before I was even born. One name that sticks out is Sara Karp Hochberg. She was my grandfather’s mother. She was the last grave to be dug. She died in 1996–the year I was born.
The trip made me rethink what we leave behind, what we are remembered for. Louis Karp, to me, is a man from a story of buying a graveyard plot, a strange sense of family for someone who died 53 years before I was born, and the man in a few photographs looking like he belongs in the Jewish Mafia. Those who pass his grave will simply know that to someone he was “Our Beloved Father Lois Karp May 11, 1872-Feb. 6, 1943”. In Ray Bradbury’s story The Lake, Harold remembers his friend drowning. What he keeps in his memory is “years past when [he] had carried her books home from school,” building sandcastles with her and how “she went laughing, and the sun was on her small twelve-year-old shoulders”. It makes me wonder what people will remember me for.
It also brought up the question in my mind about who remembers you when you are gone. Who hears the stories about you years after you are gone? A family member born years later, a passerby of your grave, people at a party where a story about you is told, or even the people who prepare you for the grave. It reminded me of Sam Weller’s The Girl in the Funeral Parlour. Many people who never knew us may see our grave or our bodies, just like the boy in the story. He simply happens to be delivering flowers to the parlour and sees the open casket. He looks at her face and is struck by her. He is entranced by “a horizontal scar [that] ran across the side of her forehead, angling down into her manicured eyebrow. It threw off the symmetry of her otherwise perfect face. But in an odd way, it made her more alluring and enigmatic.” and notices her name on a sympathy card, “Catherine Courington”. Will the image of me affect anyone after I am gone? Will they find my name and attach it to the image? Or will I simply fade into anonymity like so many before me?
As I walked away from the graves, the ground seemed to sink beneath my feet, drawing me closer to the people without whom I would not stand here today. I wonder where exactly they are down below. I forgot how deep graves are so I had to look it up, as it was killing me, so to speak. I felt foolish when the words “six feet” glared back at me and I realized that of course ‘six feet under’ wasn’t just a meaningless saying. I found out more about Jewish burial traditions in an effort to connect more deeply to my culture–a culture I can easily forget is part of my identity when going about my day-to-day life. Blu Greenberg explains in her book How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household that “the blood of a person is considered as holy as his life and deserves proper burial,” meaning that the ritual washing of the body is not performed on those who had blood soak into their clothing at the time of death. It also shocked me that traditional Jewish funerals take place within 24 hours of death, unless extraneous circumstances force the ceremony to be postponed a day, as anything more may be considered disrespectful to the deceased.
Graveyards hold secrets. People’s lives, families, hopes and dreams may have fallen with them or risen above. Some of the gaps between the years engraved on the stones are small. A child lost in the winds of time, unable to fulfill their purpose. Some span 90 decades, holding secrets that we will never know. Their own memories are gone, but live to pass on memories others had of them. We won’t know their feelings, in many cases; all we are left is the short list of relationships that were important to others, such as “wife, mother and sister”. Perhaps the saying carved in Hebrew was a life mantra, or perhaps it was simply picked in a hurry by relatives. I wonder who will decide what will represent me and the people in my life when we leave. There be a joke, an inner meaning, or something that I myself would not have chosen, because it is artificial. I will not know. I am not Shakespeare and do not write my own engravings. I often speak through others, as in my craft of acting, taking other’s words and giving them a meaning that is relevant in other people’s lives. (Izzie Karp/CoS Student)