Love, Loss, and Legacy: How to Celebrate Life After Death

The Beauty of What Remains

Rabbi Steve Leder shares an excerpt about using music to honor one woman’s memory from his new book, The Beauty of What Remains

Some say that grief is the price we pay for love, and nowhere is that better illustrated than in Rabbi Steve Leder’s new book, The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift. As a religious leader, presiding over funerals is a regular part of Rabbi Leder’s job. Yet when faced with his own father’s mortality, Leder learns just how painful and complicated the grieving process is— and how much death can teach us about life. Below is an excerpt from the book which illustrates how even after we pass, we can live on through the lives of others. 

The Beauty of What Remains

Many years ago a woman came to see me with her son. She was old even then, in her mid-eighties for sure. Her deep-set eyes were darkly circled. She was a study in calm, with a sadness to her, the look of someone slightly lost in dementia and left behind by time. Sophia was a retired music teacher who had taught Sunday school at the temple in the 1950s.  She wanted to talk about what would happen after she died. She wanted me to meet her son.

Who would preside over the funeral? How could she be certain things would be as she wanted them? She knew the previous senior rabbi, but he’d been gone for twenty-five years. She wanted me to know about her, her family, her son, her love of music. And she wanted to give something to the temple. Actually, she wanted to give everything to the temple. That afternoon Sophia told me that she was leaving everything—her house, her money—to the temple after she and her son had both died. Her son told me that he too was leaving everything to the temple. “And we are leaving the temple this violin,” Sophia said to me, “with one condition.” She stared into my eyes, expecting a promise of trust and care. The condition? That it be displayed in a glass case somewhere at the temple.

It was an 1840 violin by Giuseppe Sgarbi. He worked in Finale Emilia from 1840 to 1878, and then moved to Rome. Sgarbi’s son and pupil, Antonio, took over his workshop in Rome in 1890 when Sgarbi returned to Finale Emilia. Sgarbi’s violins are distinguished by a personal style expressed fully through the modeling of the scrolls and his choice of wood. The best samples are covered in a shiny transparent rich orange-red varnish.  

It seemed a simple enough promise to keep. Yes, I promised Sophia, I would be sure that her funeral was done as she requested, and I would be sure that we displayed the violin. I thanked her and her son for their generosity to the temple, leaving her home, their money, and Sgarbi’s violin in our hands, and I promised them I would keep my word.

Years passed.  Dementia set deeply into Sophia’s aged brain. Her son was stricken with cancer and died before she did. I went to tell Sophia the sad news. She was now alone with her caretaker. Sophia died not long after I told her about her son. And I kept every promise to her except one, because I know she would have wanted me to break it. 

“A woman died and left everything to the temple,” I mentioned at one of our clergy meetings soon after Sophia’s death. “Her home, her money, and a violin,” I added. “Where should we display the violin?”

“You can’t just display a violin,” one of the other rabbis said. “If you don’t play it, it will die. The varnish, the wood, the tone will be ruined, gone. Violins die if  you don’t play them.”

He was right. My research led me to an article by Ian Fisher in The New York Times about Cremona, Italy, and a man named Andrea Mosconi. 

A violin, it turns out, needs to be played, just as a car needs to be driven . . . In this city that produced the best violins ever made, that job belongs to Andrea Mosconi. He is 75, and for the past 30 years, six days a week, he has finger-fed 300-year-old violins, worth millions, a diet of Bach, Tchaikovsky and Bartok. . . . 

Every morning, Mr.  Mosconi, the  city’s official  musical conservationist, stands before pristine, multilocked glass cases and  faces three violins by the Amatis,  .  .  .  two by the Guarneris and four instruments—three violins and a cello—by Stradivari. . . 

Getting down to work, he unlocks the cases and carefully removes each instrument. He tunes them, then plays each for six or seven minutes. He starts with scales and arpeggios, then something more substantial, on a recent day part of one of Bach’s partitas for the violin. Nothing less would do.

“A great instrument should  get great music and also a great performer,” he says. A multimillion-dollar instrument in his hand, he paused for a moment to ponder his own place. . . . 

Most violinists never get near a Stradivarius and still, three decades after beginning this routine, he feels the weight of caring so closely for so many.

The weight of caring.  That’s what we bear when death comes to our loved ones. The weight of caring for those we love who have died but not left us and will not leave us, so long as we remember and live the lessons of their lives. 

I kept my promise to Sophia. Yes, we display the violin. But we do not just keep it locked behind glass; we also play it at special moments throughout the year and especially during our annual memorial service for people who have suffered a loss in the past year. 

We too, we mere humans, must also actively remember our loved ones, or they too will surely  die not once, as all things must, but a second, more permanent death. 

Excerpt from The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift by Rabbi Steve Leder