A few days ago, I took my boys on a pilgrimage to Leonard Cohen’s gravesite in Montreal. We winded our way up and down Mount Royal, crossed some Canadian mud patches with only one ruined pair of pants, navigated through one Catholic cemetery, then another. Along the way we discussed the nature of these places, where we bury our dead.
“Don’t step on the gray stones!”
“Because there are people buried under them?”
“Each one of them was buried by people who love them, and we respect that love by not stepping on the graves.”
“Are they skeletons?”
“It depends how long they’ve been there.”
“Do we all become skeletons when we die?”
“First our skin becomes part of the earth, then our flesh, and then we are like skeletons for a while. But it’s not really us, just what’s left of our bodies.”
As a parent, I find this moment liberating. I question myself, talking this way to a five-year-old, but the anxiety I used to pick up from him on this topic is absent now. Maybe the matter-of-fact way his older brother talks about the role of worms and their digestive system helps normalize the inevitable.
“We’re going to the grave of one of the most famous Canadians ever,” I tell them.
“What is he famous for?”
“He invented something,”
“He was a sports star.”
“The president of Canada?”
“They don’t have those here. And no. Keep thinking.”
Finally, we arrive at the Gate of the Heavens Cemetery (Sha’ar Hashamayim). We examine one “Cohen” grave, then another, and another as we look for Leonard’s. Some of them have stones placed on them, a practice which I also try to explain to the boys. None of the graves, however, have the different type of Star of David we’ve been instructed to find. Different in what way, we’re not exactly sure.
Finally, we detect a gravestone completely covered in little stones, along with flowers, laminated letters, pencils, pieces of art and other…