“May Their Memory Be a Blessing”
Subtitle: And other statements intended to comfort mourners.
I published this on Medium on April 14, 2020, and it’s one of my most popular posts there. Excuse the strange formatting here. I did a quick clean up after I copied and pasted, but didn’t feel like being thorough.
In Judaism, when someone dies, it’s customary to say the Hebrew, “Zichrono Livrocho” (for men) / “Zichrona Livrocho” (for women).
In Hebrew, it’s written as זיכרונו לברכה or its abbreviation ז״ל (ZL).
Of course, translations can be direct or formatted to suit the end language. Sentence structure has nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in a specific order. Verbatim translations don’t make sense.
“Zichrono Livrocho” literally means, “memory-of-him to-blessing.” Standard translations are “[His/her] memory is a blessing”, “Of blessed memory”, or “May [his/her] memory be a blessing”.
The last one — “May their memory be a blessing” — seems the most common. It’s the one I’ve heard most often and read most often.
I don’t like that phrase.
Blessing the memory
My problem with this one: Of course their memory will be a blessing. There is no may.
Isn’t it always?
For a person grieving, the memory of the person they’re mourning is a blessing, especially if the person was a loving person, a kind person, a mensch, as we say. Extraordinary and ordinary people alike, memories of them are blessings for someone.
On Facebook, an acquaintance posted a beautiful tribute to an 89-year-old man who died on the second day of Passover. “while not a direct victim of the Corona Virus, it is not unreasonable to consider COVID-19 to be his eternal nemesis,” he wrote.
The deceased “was a man of unmistakable presence, both in physical stature and magnanimous personality who could draw an audience in any social gathering.”
According to a Google search, the man was an influential member of Montreal’s Jewish community.
Of course, the memory of this man will be a blessing. He left behind a legacy.
Most people leave behind some sort of legacy (memory). Lives are blessings. Memories are blessings. We don’t need to revere a person to bestow mercy on them.
Wishing blessings and wishing peace are nearly synonymous.
“May peace be upon him/her” and “May they rest in peace” — two more traditional phrases for Jewish mourning — seem more metaphorical than literal — particularly when expressed by those without faith.
The physical body will rest in peace, undisturbed.
“resting in peace” suggests the soul.
Resting in peace, I think, has to do with the soul. However, people who don’t believe that the soul exists — those who don’t think there’s an alternative to resting in peace — casually offer “RIP” as a platitude.
It’s what you say.
Some phrases exist to be cliche. They’re what you say in particular scenes during this improvised play we call life. You have a choice of comments to make in any situation, and you choose one. Conversation structure has predictable reciprocal statements.
- “How are you?” (I care, but my phone just notified me that someone just tagged me on Instagram, and I want to see what they said.)
- “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?” (I’m not fine, but you don’t want to hear about it.)
Rest in peace is on the official list of things you’re encouraged to say to a mourner. So many turns of phrase are about intention/feeling rather than literal belief.
Rest in peace is a show of support.
Ideally, we’d want every soul to be at peace, but we all know that it can be challenging to think positive thoughts toward someone who’s caused damage to others.
An outstanding example of wishing well to someone damaging happened just a few days ago. Hours before Linda Tripp passed away from pancreatic cancer that ravaged her quickly, Monica Lewinsky tweeted,
no matter the past, upon hearing that linda tripp is very seriously ill, i hope for her recovery. i can’t imagine how difficult this is for her family.
That’s class. If anyone has a reason to think, “Good riddance,” it’s Lewinsky. If that tweet weren’t so fresh and I wasn’t still feeling its effects, I wouldn’t even have mentioned it.
May the Almighty [or whatever you believe in] comfort you
The comforting statement that I like best is the blessing, “May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
If you don’t believe in an “Almighty” change the statement to, “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Either way, there’s a suggestion of community and interconnectedness, on which this pandemic has shone a light. At some point in their lives, everyone has experienced a loss. Everyone has been a mourner. In these times of COVID-19, especially, the virus has touched us all in some way. We were sick, or we know someone who got sick; we know someone immunocompromised who has a high risk of getting sick. We know someone that knows someone. We know the names of musicians (and other public figures) who have been ill. Some, like Pink, have recovered. Others, like Adam Schlesinger, have not been so lucky.
Let’s make the most out of our lives, especially now.
Let’s all be kind and compassionate. Be charitable. Give as much or as little as you can, as long as you give. Be helpful. Be useful.
Let’s keep the number of instances that we act like assholes (we all have our moments) to a minimum.
The memory of all of us is a blessing.
We are one.