June 17, 2024
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June 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

My mother died when I was 8 years old and consequently I have always had an inordinate fascination with death and its trappings. I often attribute my choice of profession to this early history. (I guess you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud for that insight, right Alex, Paul, Arthur, Holly and Sue?). One of my most vivid recollections from that awful time in my life was the long ride from New York City out to central New Jersey to the cemetery where my mother was buried. At the time, it was a relatively sparsely populated collection of graves in a cemetery incongruously named the Washington Cemetery. (Interestingly, there is also a Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn but don’t look for my mother there.)

Over the years, I have had innumerable occasions to travel the New Jersey Turnpike to visit this site and, as with the rest of real estate in Jewish areas of New Jersey, it has been getting increasingly densely populated. Now when I go to my mother’s grave, I have to be careful not to tread on anyone. (Is this the motto from whence comes the cemetery name?) Years later, my father was buried there as well and, anomalously, my mother’s older sister is buried between them. You see, this sister was married to an older man, and he chose to be buried with his first wife. As a result, Tante Gusti, who was childless, was left alone when she died with literally nowhere to go, so the family gave her the spot next to my mother. So, my father now lies buried next to his sister-in-law who, if truth be told, he was never that fond of. And as I just learned masechet Kiddushin and the laws of yibbum and relations with two sisters, I wonder if the tannaim or amoraim ever addressed the burial of two sisters and one husband. Seder Nashim has seven masechtot, but could it ever truly encompass all the permutations of family life?

As one grows older, the opportunity to go to cemeteries increases. Two Sundays ago, Elie and I went to a Queens cemetery for an unveiling, a ceremony that, if I would be honest to the readers, I have always found somewhat unusual. What it did remind me of, however, was the widespread prevalence of landsmannschaften. These were immigrant fraternal benevolent organizations formed by former residents of the same geographic locales in Europe and intended to provide social, emotional and financial support for their members. Certainly, one of their prime benefits was to provide burial sites to their members and their families.

The unveiling took place in the confines of the Wengrover Society, established in 1896 for immigrants from Wegrow, a town of 12,000 near Warsaw, half of whose residents were Jewish and were totally wiped out. The graves of my parents (and aunt) are in the plot reserved by the Gorlicer Society, stalwart immigrants and refugees from Galicia, mainly the Cracow area. There were almost 5,000 Jews in Gorlice before the war but people other than from Gorlice joined the society—my father and uncles were from Lipnica Murowana, about 50 kilometers from Cracow; there were even a couple of Hungarians by marriage, but they were the butts of most of the jokes—many of whom used to congregate at our home on Saturday nights to play cards and schmooze in Yiddish and Polish, to pinch my and my cousin’s cheeks, and to sit on the plastic coverings on our furniture while drinking tea and Cherry Heering.

There are just over 100 Jewish cemeteries in the greater New York-New Jersey area, with over 10,000 groups—landsmannschaften, Workers Circle, synagogue groups—or other organizations within them in which one may choose to be buried. In the old days, the landsmannschaften were by far the most popular (there were over 3,000), but more recently the synagogue groups have grown in popularity. I suppose there may be some desirability to wanting to lie in repose near the same guy for all eternity (or till Moshiach comes) that you sat next to in shul and with whom you kibitzed while the rabbi spoke.

Of course, the other current popular trend has been to be buried in Jerusalem—after death to have the close family and those of your friends and relatives in Israel attend a rapid ceremony in Jerusalem while the mourners sit a brief shiva and then return to the U.S. to continue the shiva.

Some years ago, Elie and I visited the Gorlicer plot where all the Neuguts and assorted relatives are buried. We found a nice little two-plot space right near my parents, so the kids won’t have to travel far to visit the grandparents when they come. The plots are in the shade and right next to the road; I am hoping I will get the aisle plot. But the middle plot is next to my favorite uncle, the one who suffered through the war (that doesn’t distinguish him from any of the others) but always had candy in his pocket for us kids. I won’t mind being between him and Elie when the time comes.


Alfred I. Neugut, MD, PhD, is a medical oncologist and cancer epidemiologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/New York Presbyterian and Mailman School of Public Health in New York. Email: [email protected].

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and does not constitute medical or other professional advice. Always seek the advice of your qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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