In our busy and complex culture we have come to rely on the expertise of professionals to manage everything from … well … the cradle to the grave! Often this has turned out to be a great improvement over the unsafe, unhealthful, or unscrupulous practices that were in great need of improvement and regulation. But there continue to be intersections of civic, private and religious life that have the potential for conflict. We are familiar with some of these areas that have become fodder for sensational news and political polarization, but there are other areas about which many of us have very little awareness.
Most people don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that each of us will someday stop being a participant in life as we know it. Just about everything in our culture has been put up for grabs, but the fact remains that every person who is born will some day die. It is unfortunate that some of us will also leave a legacy of argument and confusion to those who are left to figure out what to do with what once was ours. What to do with the body is no exception. Many a group of siblings has torn itself to shreds arguing over what to do with physical remains as well as estate property. That is why things such as living wills, ethical wills and directions about inheritance of property have become more important than ever. It behooves us greatly to take the guesswork out of these things that are easier to ignore until someone’s facing them is unavoidable.
And so it is with funeral arrangements. Much of what has come about in North American funeral customs arose out of the unfathomable devastation of life caused by the American Civil War. There were so many dead among us that it required institutional management. As time went on and events such as birth, care of the young, old and infirm, and death were removed from the home, hospitals, nursing homes, day cares, and, yes, funeral homes became acceptable and in some cases inevitable institutions allowing for professionals to handle the parts of life that once were anticipated and accepted parts of the human journey cared for in the home or by that person’s caring community. And again, this has sometimes resulted in remarkable benefits as well as tremendous personal losses.
Unfortunately for modern day North American Jews, one of those losses has been that many of us no longer understand the beauty and profound meaning behind some of our customs. With regard to death, we have significantly lost our collective memory as we unquestioningly give over the remains of those we loved in life to strangers, trusting that as we pay for their services, they will take care of all that needs to be done at this very difficult time.
The prevailing customs and practices around death and burial in modern America are profoundly different from the traditions and customs so valued as a part of the Jewish cycle of life. There is a centuries old tradition within Judaism that we lovingly gather up, care for, accompany, and dispose of our sisters’ and brothers’ human remains. This is not an act that we historically have given over to institutions or companies. This is the final true act of kindness (hesed shel emet), a final kindness for which there can be no thanks from the one to whom it is given. The ritual of taharah (purification) is performed by members of a chevra kadisha (holy fellowship). The chevra is made up of women and men from all parts of the Jewish community who volunteer their time as they come together to wash the dead, dress them in simple white clothing (tachrichim), swaddle them gently yet securely and lovingly seal them within a plain pine box (aron). At all times during this ritual the dead are addressed respectfully by name, handled with modesty, and surrounded by the sounds of gentle chanting from the Hebrew scriptures with no conversation and with every motion and action focused on the person who has begun a journey of coming closer to the One Who created all things.
The women and men of the chevra kadisha are constantly aware of their great responsibility as they are in the presence of this drawing near between humanity and God. From the time of death through the moment of burial, the deceased is not to be left alone and the members of the community are to attend first to the respectful preparation of the dead for burial, then turn attention to comforting the mourners. We take the task of burying our dead seriously and literally. Without embalming, cosmetizing or placing the dead on public display in elaborate caskets, the supportive community of peers prepares the dead, protects them, eulogizes them, buries them and comforts the living. These are the responsibilities of fellow Jews. People just like us. No funeral director (nor even a rabbi) is needed for this holy responsibility.
The Jewish community in Pittsburgh is fortunate to have several groups of volunteers who selflessly go about accepting responsibility for this sacred task. Pittsburgh’s diverse Jewish community includes Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal and unaffiliated Jews, and this pluralism is reflected in the composition of the holy fellowships in our city that perform the ritual of taharah. Each chevra kadisha is available to come to any funeral home to perform this ritual for any Jewish person. Some funeral homes are more accommodating than others, as are some cemeteries in permitting us to actually bury our dead, which means, shovel in hand, filling the grave of our loved ones with the earth to which they return. Jewish funerals are intended to be respectful, simple, inexpensive, egalitarian and ecologically sensible.
After 60 years the code regulating Pennsylvania’s funeral practices is being challenged. It is one of a handful in the country that continues to make it possible to place selective limitations on Jews and other religious groups in their efforts to carry out the traditions that accompany death and burial. Pennsylvania funeral directors are presently required to study for licensure by demonstrating competencies about business practices, merchandising, customer relations, cosmetology and embalming. Meeting with the funeral director, familiarity with what our tradition has to offer all too often becomes the burden of the mourner rather than the starting point of the conversation. Educational efforts are needed more than ever so choices can be made based on our Jewish values before other considerations.
You can learn more about the simplicity and beauty of Jewish funeral traditions by reading “A Plain Pine Box” by Arnold M. Goodman, or visiting Kavod v’ Nichum (jewish-funerals.org) online. And whether you are Jewish or not, you can familiarize yourself with the many topics related to end of life decisions through the Jewish Healthcare Foundation’s Closure program at jhf.org.
Death is the great equalizer. It is a difficult time for those who survive. Simplicity, support, and trust are needed at such times. Information through education about our traditions and their meaning is essential to obtaining this result. But we tend to study our options at this juncture as consumers of services rather than as recipients of kindness. There are times in life for each. Let’s hope that the future of Pennsylvania’s funeral home regulations makes it easier for Jews and many others to rethink our priorities as we face our final common and inevitable frontier: mortality.
(Daniel Leger is a registered nurse in Pittsburgh and is studying for certification as a chaplain.)