The Museum of Science and Industry, located in Tampa, Fla., recently opened what it is describing as an “educational” exhibition devoted to the body. Among the “pieces” on display are skinless corpses sliced in two, tarred human lungs, dehydrated brains, a gallery of dead fetuses, and a variety of sliced and diced body parts.
As a volunteer member of my community’s Chevra Kadisha, or burial society, I found myself troubled by the prospect of Floridians flocking to so ghoulish an exhibition. Judaism’s preparation for burial — a ritual known as tahara (purification) — demands that respect for the body and the soul extend beyond death. The Chevra Kadisha quietly and privately washes, purifies and dresses the deceased in white linen shrouds tied with knots in the shape of the Hebrew letter shin, the first letter of one of the holy names for God. Chevra Kadisha members also recite lyrical prayers as a way of bearing witness to the last of life’s passages. After burial society members have gently lowered the body into its casket, they gather around it and ask the deceased to forgive them for any unintentional lack of respect during the tahara. The casket is closed and remains so until burial. What a contrast to the carnival freak show currently being staged at Tampa’s museum!
The overriding principle informing Jewish burial customs is kavod hamet, respect for the body of the deceased. At death, the soul (thought to be the spirit of God) leaves the body and enters a transitional stage until burial. Judaism teaches that the soul hovers near the body and that the totality of the person who died continues to exist until burial. From the moment of death until burial, the deceased is provided with a shomer, a round-the-clock honor guard, who prays for the soul by reciting Psalms.
The principle of respect for the dead is put into practice with great attention to detail. Even though the body is covered by a sheet, additional small coverings are provided for the face and the genitals. As a sign of deference, the body is never placed in a face-down position. In order to wash the back, for example, the body is rolled from side to side. One never passes objects over the deceased. If one member of the team needs scissors to remove a tag, he or she (men serve men and women serve women) will walk around the table to get them. Male members of the Chevra are also not allowed to have the fringes of their tallit katan (fringed undergarment) visible during the tahara. The fringes are a reminder to obey the commandments of the Torah, and since the deceased no longer can do this, having them visible is considered an affront.
Another of the process’s requirements is that blood released from the body after the time of death cannot be washed away. It is considered part of the body and must be buried with the deceased. Blood spots on sheets are cut out and placed at the foot of the casket. Open wounds are treated with a coagulant, and the cloth used for this likewise is placed at the foot of the casket.
As a symbolic tie to the Land of Israel, most burial societies sprinkle Israeli soil in the casket, on the eyes, heart and, with men, on the brit milah area of the shrouded body. Finally, it is customary to use a plain pine wood casket that has holes drilled in the bottom. The simplicity of the casket speaks to the fact that all are considered equal at the time of death, while the holes allow the fulfillment of the biblical verse, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”(Genesis 3:9)
Beautification, embalming and cremation are considered by Jewish law to be impermissible violations of the body. Following the tahara, viewing of the deceased is only permitted for identification purposes.
In Greenfield, Mass., which has a Jewish population of 2,000, the Chevra Kadisha has added an additional practice to the usual customs. Phyllis Nahman, head of the women’s Chevra, described the practice:
“Before we perform the tahara, we always gather as a small group for about 15 minutes. We center ourselves with guided meditation or just by talking about the deceased person’s life. It helps to bring us into holy space. Prior to this gathering it is someone’s responsibility to speak to a member of the bereaved family to garner information about the deceased. We have been astounded to hear about the deceased person’s amazing acts of bravery and courage. Not only is it healing for the family to reminisce, but it enables the Chevra to get a sense of the whole person, which in turn dignifies the ritual.”
Chevra Kadisha members who face the most daunting challenges are the first-line responders to terrorist attacks in Israel. The members of ZAKA Search and Rescue, an organization established to identify disaster and terrorist victims, are responsible for identifying bodies, informing the next of kin and preparing the deceased for burial. Motti, a ZAKA member, talked about the challenges he faces:
“We collect every drop of blood and the smallest piece of a body. Every time a blood vessel bursts, there is a cascade of blood. We have special materials that help us absorb this blood for burial. When there is blood commingled from a number of deceased victims, then it is buried in one of the existing graves or in a separate grave called kever achim, the grave of our brothers.”
Providing dignity beyond death not only honors the deceased but also provides comfort for the bereaved family. Helen Cohan of Boca Raton, Fla., recently reflected on the death of her mother, Sabina Mager:
“Imagining the grace and respect my mother was afforded in death is an ongoing source of comfort. Her tahara affirms her abiding presence even though she has passed from this life.”
Rochel U. Berman is a member of the Boca Raton Synagogue Chevra Kadisha. She is the author of the recently published “Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial” (Urim Publications), from which this essay is adapted.