Twenty years ago I accidentally discovered my own great-grandmother’s matzeva (tombstone) in a small cemetery in Kezmarok, Slovakia, a town by then devoid of living Jews. This astounding discovery spurred me to examine thousands of other abandoned, unvisited, ignored, and forgotten matzevot all over Europe in the hope that others like myself would benefit from my help in locating the graves of their ancestors.
As a former software engineer in aerospace, I found it useful to begin my analysis of each matzeva by using an analytical tool to understand the factors that affected its creation, even before attempting to decipher its inscriptions. The tool that I use is known as a functional (or activity) model and was based on a specific analytical tool adopted by the United States Air Force for the design and manufacture of aircraft.
A functional model such to this one can be used to understand the design and creation of any artifact of genealogical interest — including a tombstone!
A Modeling Technique, IDEF0
The US Air Force modeling system that I adapted is commonly known as the “ICAM Definition for Function Modeling” (IDEF0). The system used not only by the Air Force but by industry in general to model the decisions, actions, and activities of an organization or system. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IDEF0
As shown in Figure 1, the standard Functional Model contains five main concepts:
Function or activity: the object or outcome which is to be created. For the aircraft industry, at the highest level, the function would be to “Produce an Aircraft”; for our present purposes: “Produce a Matzeva.”
Input: Data or consumables needed by the function/activity
Output: Data or products produced by the function/activity
Constraints: Commands (constraints) that influence the execution of a function/activity but are not consumed
Mechanisms: The means, components or tools used to accomplish the function/activity. Represents allocations (i.e., who or what works on the activity).
A Process Model for Developing a Matzeva
Applying this concept to the activity or function of producing a tombstone, I adapted the five concepts of the standard IDEF0 model as shown in Figure 2:
Function: Produce a Matzeva
Input – Existential Artifacts: What was known of the deceased, notable facts, accomplishments of his or her life, and personal attributes. What artifacts can be found of, but not limited to, the person’s existence, such as names, documents (BMD records), synagogue records, titles/honorifics, accomplishments, obituaries, newspaper articles, rabbinic or scholarly dynasties, tribal identification (Cohen or Levi), military records, books written)
Constraints – Content: Since the dimensions of the matzeva are finite and limited, how much information will fit, and dependent on the memorial’s medium, can be inscribed? Are abbreviations (rashe tevot = Hebrew acronyms) necessary and which ones? Should some imagery be added, and what should it convey? Which language(s), religious traditions and rituals, chronograms, prose/poetry style, font, environment (place, time), calendars, should be included? These again are not a complete list of possibilities.
Mechanisms – Decision Makers: Who are the people involved in deciding what should be inscribed on a particular matzeva? Was it only the surviving family or friend? Did they consult a knowledgeable person? In the countries in which the deceased lived, did survivors, engravers, rabbis/scholars, and secular authorities impose limitations on what could be included?
Output – Memorial: The matzeva itself is the final, “carved in stone” product.
Analyzing and Deciphering a Tombstone/Matzeva
Once we have analyzed the environment in which the matzeva was created, we reverse gears by using our analytical tool to decipher the inscriptions found on the matzeva. While a primary goal is to identify the individual buried beneath the stone, as genealogists we are also interested in learning as much as possible about that person’s life and circumstances.
The concepts at this stage are described as follows:
Input – Inscribed Memorial (Input): The “tabula inscripta” (the “carved in stone” inscription) on some solid medium. (stone, metal, etc.)
Constraints – Content: Language(s), religious tradition & ritual (Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi, whether orthodox, conservative, reform, possibly even Jews who were so removed and may have requested their preferences in advance), chronograms, anagrams, imagery, prose/poetry style, font, environment (place and time), rashe tevot (acronyms), Biblical/Talmudic references.
Mechanisms – Researcher: The researcher extracts what was inscribed, identifies persons and relationships, solves mysteries/puzzles, explains imagery, expands rashe tevot, calculates dates, determines a tribe (Cohen/Levi/Israelite), and accesses supplementary material (such as BMD records, synagogue records, obituaries, newspaper articles, family trees, scholarly works).
Output – Claims Pertaining to a Person’s Life and Circumstances: Claims concerning the names of the deceased and their family members, dates and places, titles and honorifics, relationships, accomplishments, dynasties, and status (Cohen, Levi or Israelite).
Having an understanding of how a particular matzeva was created, including the resources that were available to the stonemason/carver and/or the constraints which guided him, a genealogist or researcher may draw more reliable inferences about the deceased beyond the claims presented in the matzeva’s plain text. The discipline of modeling functional models, while demonstrably valuable in understanding the creation of matzeva, may also guide genealogists to better synthesize all types of genealogical artifacts, thereby improving the quality of our research and the breadth and accuracy of our discoveries.
With acknowledgement to the work of University of Virginia Professor Luther Tychonievich, whose proposed genealogical terminology is ideally suited to the modeling process described in this article. See: https://www.avotaynuonline.com/2015/03/define-terms-win-argument-genealogical-jargon-can-obscure-truth/