5 Simple Ways to Observe a Yahrzeit

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Yahrzeit is the anniversary of someone’s passing from this world into the next. 

Death is a truly humbling experience, but it is also one which has the potential to be beautiful and life giving.  Perhaps this seems ironic, but when I, as an immature 20 year old decided to first embark on the experience of volunteering at a hospice I told my supervisor during my interview that I believed in a Jewish proverb which states that to be born is a miracle and to die is also a miracle.  Unfortunately, due to life circumstances and school commitments I was not able to complete my term with hospice, however, this proverb has maintained significance in my life and it is through my Jewish understandings of death that I have learned that grief has powerful significance.

I will never forget one visit to a Synagogue where the Yahrzeit candle was lit for each member of the congregation who passed away during that week years ago with their names read out.  At the very end of each week we were to remember the [over] 6 million Jewish people who lost their life in the Holocaust, some of whose names we will never know. 

In my own personal life, when my Oma (grandmother) passed away I maintained this sense of Yahrzeit and this desire to remember her every year on the anniversary of her death.  Today as I write this, I am remembering the birthday of one of our residents (core members) who recently passed away, as well as Henri Nouwen’s Yahrzeit (September 21st) – who was a L’Arche pastor in our community.

I think we can all understand and appreciate the importance of keeping memories of those who go before us alive, but how exactly do we go about making this happen?  I would like to suggest five ways in which we can keep a Yahrzeit every year on the anniversary of someone’s death.

1)  Start a tradition.  One of my classmates at Tyndale went through a terrible loss in her first year when her friend passed away suddenly at a very young age.  Although grief has the tendency to have a numbing or traumatic affect for many years, this young woman courageously declared that on the anniversary of her friend’s death we could stand in solidary and remember him by posting “I want to run, jump, and spread life into this world” on our Facebook statuses.  This was the last status that he posted before his tragic death.  She also suggested we could do a random act of kindness or wear the colour orange in honour of him.

This is just one example of how we can remember someone special in our lives after they are gone.  It could also be in the form of making a certain type of food, gathering together a core group of family or friends, or holding short ceremonies at the grave side of the person we are remembering.  It is also a nice gesture to be able to write cards or send flowers to the closest family members or friends of this individual to let the family know that we are still remembering their cherished loved one.

2) Light a candle and say a prayer.  It’s such a simple thing, but there is something about the flame of a candle which has a very spiritual impact on people.  You can even put the picture of the deceased right by the candle as you offer a prayer of thanks to God for their life.  I come at this suggestion with the understanding that the Catholics and the Protestants have slightly different views on what this all entails, but nevertheless, it can be a very helpful time in the grieving process.

3) Is there a specific charity or cause the deceased was a part of?  Consider giving a donation to this organization on their Yahrzeit in memory of them.

4)  Consider planting a flower or tree every year on the deceases Yahrzeit.  It is a great way to continue the circle of life even when they are gone and to beautify the world. 

5) Spend personal time.  This is not a “creepy” thing at all.  It’s not about trying to communicate through séances or crystal balls.  Rather what it is about is letting your feelings out towards the deceased.  You can go to the graveside and simply talk there as if the person were still present.  You can write a letter to the person.  You can do all of these things while at the same time acknowledging that their present is still real but in a wholly different way. 

I hope these experiences are helpful to you as your make your own journey towards Yahrzeit remember that “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away, blessed by the Name of the Lord.”

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