The annual meeting of the Jewish death care radicals is no place for a funeral director.
That became clear just after lunch on the second full day of the North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, when an attorney named Efrem Grail unloaded on the coffin hawkers.
“This is about a protected profession which has usurped the power of the state to maintain its monopoly,” Grail railed, speaking to a small crowd in a windowless meeting room. “Funeral directors are nothing more than party planners.”
That rudely put heresy was more than enough for the one funeral director in the room, who noisily left.
A new breed of unlikely revolutionaries is seeking to shift the balance of power over Jewish death practices away from the increasingly centralized funeral home industry and into the hands of Jewish communities. Over three days in early June, the rebels gathered at a historic synagogue in Philadelphia to talk strategy.
The 100-odd attendees, most of them older than 60, were Conservative and Reform laypeople and rabbis; some of them staid Hadassah ladies, others acolytes of the late radical organizer Saul Alinsky. Together they’re organizing against funeral homes and the large, profitable, publicly traded international corporations that own many of them. The stakes are fundamental.
“This is our tradition,” said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, the 13-year-old not-for-profit that organizes the annual conference. “This is our mitzvah. It belongs to us. The fact that we’ve abdicated or given it up… doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong to us. It still belongs to us.”
Zinner’s organization, founded in 2000, applies community-organizing tactics to death care. His goal is to challenge the corporations controlling Jewish funerals. His means is the chevra kadisha, the secret society of anonymous community members that prepares Jewish bodies for burial, but has largely died out in non-Orthodox communities.
If you die in Oklahoma City and you need a Jewish funeral, Eleanor Miller might get a phone call. A bent old woman in a flower-print dress, Miller says she doesn’t know if she prepared her first body for burial 30 or 40 years ago, but she still remembers the day.
A chevra kadisha member never forgets her first. “All I can remember is coming out of the building and looking at the sky and looking at the trees, and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, it was life,’” said Zinner, his eyes reddening, remembering his own first time preparing a body.
Jews traditionally don’t embalm or cremate their dead. Instead, sometime in the short window between death and burial, a chevra kadisha member is shut into a room with the corpse. Usually made up of four people, all of them the same sex as the deceased, the chevra kadisha cleans the body with cloths and rags and then ritually purifies it, usually by pouring water to simulate a mikveh. The members speak little, if at all, and read prescribed prayers. Later, they dress the body in white burial garments and place it in the coffin.
The members of community-based chevra kadishas like Miller’s and Zinner’s often clean the bodies of people they knew in life. That’s not the norm in non-Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States, where funeral homes generally outsource the chevra kadisha’s work to paid professionals.
Zinner’s own grandparents, Jewish immigrants from Germany, made a living performing tahara, the ritual washing of bodies, for Jewish funeral homes in St. Louis. Yet now Zinner is committed to replacing the pros with communal volunteers like Miller. Kavod v’Nichum has created an online training program for chevra kadisha members called the Gamliel Institute, the first of its kind. The group also helps create new chevra kadishas locally.
“Tahara is more than going down to the funeral home and washing a body,” said Zinner, who worked as volunteer in the government-sponsored VISTA community-organizing program after he graduated from college in the 1970s. “I’m not saying funeral home people are bad, or we should try and diss them in any way. But I’m into building communities.”
On a practical level, the Philadelphia conference allowed chevra kadisha volunteers the rare opportunity to discuss their craft. Chevra kadisha members are meant to be anonymous within their communities, and they don’t tell the family of the deceased that they worked on their relative’s body. They also aren’t allowed to speak inside the tahara room.
“So where are we supposed to talk?” said Rabbi Mel Glazer, spiritual leader of a Conservative synagogue in Colorado Springs, Colo., while leading one session. “The answer is, right here in this room. Because we have emotions.”
Prompted by Glazer, chevra kadisha members talked about the reluctance they sometimes feel to answer the phone when they see the chevra kadisha coordinator’s number on Caller ID. Others recalled the most emotionally difficult taharot they had performed: one on a young woman who had committed suicide, another on a man who had died of a disease that the chevra kadisha member himself had survived.
The chevra kadisha volunteer wears protective gloves and aprons and booties; some wear surgical masks. A conference presenter suggested wearing plastic face shields, and while some already do, others thought the warnings overwrought. “Most of the time there’s not going to be blood spurting out,” said Ednah Beth Friedman, a member of a chevra kadisha in Berkeley, Calif.
Jerome Schnell, a retired electrical engineer and a member of a chevra kadisha in New London, Conn., recalled one tahara of a man who had donated nearly every organ, including his bones. “He was like a ragdoll,” Schnell said. That posed some technical difficulties, but the chevra kadisha worked around them. “In my mind, I saw a mensch in death,” Schnell said.
Even within the same community, practices differ on the men’s and women’s teams. Men’s groups often work faster, attendees said. Some women reported that they talk to the body while they work, or even sing.
“I don’t know if there’s a men’s chevra in the world that sings,” Glazer said.
Others said that their direct contact with dead bodies during tahara had changed their own attitudes toward death. “It makes death simply a part of life,” said Schnell, 70.
The conference’s radicalism wasn’t limited to anti-funeral home polemics. One session covered a new liturgy to provide a sort of nondenominational tahara for non-Jews with close ties to Jewish communities. Stripped of references to God and Jewishness, the ritual would be performed by what the presenter called a “final kindness team.”
Later, the transgender Jewish activist and professor Joy Ladin addressed the group, nodding toward questions about death rituals for Jewish people who transition from one gender to another.
The real fire-breathing, however, came from Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, a Pittsburgh pulpit rabbi who recently won a legal battle against the state of Pennsylvania to be allowed to conduct his own burials without the intervention of a funeral director.
“I borrowed a gurney. I found a way to do the papers,” Wasserman said of the first funeral he handled on his own. He transported the body in his van. “Once we did one, there’s no reason not to do another,” he said.
Wasserman, unlike the other conference attendees, is an Orthodox rabbi trained in the Haredi enclave of Monsey, N.Y. And though he wasn’t with the death care radicals on everything — he, for instance, believes a chevra kadisha member must also observe the Sabbath — they found common ground in their skepticism of the funeral industry.
Wasserman now regularly handles burials without funeral directors. He has no refrigerator to preserve bodies, but he makes do with frozen cold packs. Wasserman said that his burials cost $2,000, while burials at local funeral homes in Pittsburgh cost $6,000.
Zinner’s approach is less radical, but it shares similar ends. In his own session, Zinner suggested using chevra kadishas to organize among synagogues and to negotiate betters rates with funeral homes. “A lot of chevra groups are going, ‘We don’t do that, we just do [taharot]… Isn’t the price of the funeral irrelevant?” Zinner said. Then he answered his own question: “The people that you’re trying to comfort and care for and honor and respect are being taken to the cleaners; they’re being ripped off; they’re paying way, way, way too much money.”
Some of the attendees were fired up; others were just there for the practical advice and the colloquy. Zinner didn’t mind that he was, perhaps, a bit ahead of his flock.
“You have to start where people are at; you have to work with them based on what they say their needs are,” he said. “That’s no different from any other Saul Alinsky-type organizing effort. But what makes it different is this infusion of Judaism, this building of community, this weaving together of threads of people’s lives.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.