Wednesday, 15 January 2020

‘When all that’s left of me is
love, give me away’ … a poem
before Kaddish has gone viral

‘Kaddish Yatom, Mourner’s Kaddish’ … ‘Epitaph’ by Merrit Malloy is included in some Reform Jewish prayer books with ‘Meditations before Kaddish’

Patrick Comerford

‘You Want it Darker’ is one of Leonard Cohen’s last songs, the title track of the album released shortly before he died in 2016.

The song is dense with Jewish language and themes, with strong religious elements in the lyrics. At the end of the chorus, Cohen sings:

Hineni, hineni; I’m ready, my Lord.

Hineni in Hebrew means ‘here I am,’ and is the name of a prayer of preparation and humility, addressed to God, chanted by the cantor on Rosh Hashanah.

One verse in this song also echoes the language and rhythm of the Kaddish, the prayer for mourners that reaffirms faith in God:

Magnified, sanctified be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified in the human frame
A million candles burning for a help that never came
You want it darker, we kill the flame


The song includes background vocals from Gideon Zelermyer, cantor of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Cohen’s home city of Montreal, and the Shaar Hashomayim choir. The cantor and choir also contributed to another song on the album, ‘It Seemed the Better Way.’

The release of the album with the dark themes in the title track and its foreshadowing of death in citations from the Kaddish came just as news was breaking of Leonard Cohen’s death:

Hineni, hineni; I’m ready my Lord.

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name
in the world which God created, according to plan
. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime
and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently,
To which we say: Amen.

Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honoured, exalted,
extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded
be the name of the Holy Blessed One,
beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort.
To which we say: Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel. To which we say: Amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. To which we say: Amen.

Leonard Cohen celebrated on recent postage stamps issued in Canada (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Recent editions of Reform Jewish prayer books in the US, including Mishkan T’filah, have added poetry as optional readings before or after the traditional liturgy of Kaddish.

One of these poems is ‘Epitaph’ by the popular poet Merrit Malloy, although she is not Jewish. The poem is included in the Reform Jewish liturgy as an optional reading before the Kaddish, a prayer traditionally recited for the dead. But it is used regularly at many other funerals and memorial services, and has gained in popularity, perhaps because ‘Epitaph’ captures how we can best keep the essence of a loved dead person alive after our death, not just in memories but through purposeful acts of love.

Mallory’s ‘Epitaph’ was reposted on Facebook three months ago by David Joyce, a musician who lives in Reseda, California. Since he posted this poem on 14 October 2019, it has been shared more than 163,000 times by today’s counting.

‘Epitaph’ by Merrit Malloy

When I die give what’s left of me away
to children and old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
cry for your brother walking the street beside you.
And when you need me, put your arms around anyone
and give them what you need to give me.

I want to leave you something,
something better than words or sounds.
Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved,
and if you cannot give me away,
at least let me live in your eyes and not your mind.

You can love me best by letting hands touch hands,
and by letting go of children that need to be free.
Love doesn’t die, people do.
So, when all that’s left of me is love,
give me away.

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