As is said in the Prayer for Dew, “With His consent I shall speak of mysteries.” And what is more mysterious than death?
Only the dead know Brooklyn, wrote Thomas Wolfe, but how many Jews in Brooklyn (or anywhere else) know the dead? Who knew that two Jewish foundational texts, the Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi, both assert that the dead can hear what is said in their presence, or at least until the closing of the coffin. (After burial, communication continues, if only through dreams). For those who prefer secular validation, Dr. Sam Parnia, director of critical care and resuscitation research at New York University’s Langone School of Medicine, last year reported “substantial anecdotal evidence” showing that people who were thought to be dead, but who were later revived, were able to describe their “awareness of full conversations … that would otherwise not be known to them.”
That even after death a soul can still hear, be afraid, be emotionally wounded, and crave dignity is motivation for the tender mercies governing the traditional Jewish treatment of “a body” between the last breath and the last shoveling. Nevertheless, of all the “life” cycle events, is anything less discussed or understood? “I was an adult when my father died and I didn’t have a clue,” said Rochel Berman, author of “Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial.”
Berman, speaking by phone from her home in Boca Raton, Fla., says, “The rituals surrounding the Jewish preparation for burial are clouded by ignorance, myth and misconceptions,” with the result that burial practices alien to Judaism (such as cremation, expensive caskets, or dressing a corpse in a business suit) have become increasingly popular. She estimates that “only 15-20 percent of Jewish deaths are accompanied by a tahara,” the traditional washing, purification and preparation of a body for burial.
Berman is working to have the Jewish ways of caring for the dead “become part of the high school curriculum in all streams of Judaism.” Teaming with Rabbi Jonathan Kroll, head of school at the 345-student Katz Yeshiva High School of South Florida (in Boca Raton), and a former administrator at both the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School and SAR High School, they compiled “The Final Journey: How Judaism Dignifies the Passage,” a 98-page guide to the course, believed to be the first of its kind. Kroll told us that he spoke to several schools that seemed “receptive” to the curriculum but no one “has yet taken this on.”
Until a few years ago, Berman, “The Final Journey” study director, lived in North Riverdale, where she had volunteered with a chevra kaddisha (as burial societies are known), performing nearly a thousand taharas. By coincidence, Kroll, before moving to Florida five years ago, volunteered at the same chevra as Berman, though they never met. (Almost all chevra kadisha workers are unpaid volunteers, only preparing the deceased of their own gender, and absolutely never engaging in small talk at a tahara. After all, if the dead can hear, small talk would be disturbing if not disrespectful.) Kroll said he was once at a wedding, talking with someone that he didn’t know but who seemed familiar, before realizing that they had recently done a tahara together but never conversed, or even exchanged names.
On the one hand, said Kroll, out of respect for the deceased, there’s a lot of humility and privacy within a chevra kadisha — members don’t like to talk about themselves, or whom they took care of, or what the chevra does. The only time the chevra might socialize is at an annual modest gathering and study session on Adar 7, when Moses died alone and God Himself did his tahara and burial. But the flip side to all the humility, said Kroll, “is that not too many people who are not in a chevra ever learn about it.”
Aside from the rituals, said Kroll, students learn the spiritual logic to the tahara, “that we are not a body that had a soul; we are a soul that had a body; a soul that does not die when the body does.” With death, “it is not so much that life ends, just a stage of existence has ended.”
The students learn the history of chevra kadishas, from the defiant chevra who did taharas even in the Lodz Ghetto, when possible; to yeshiva students who served as shomrim (honor guards) for months, reciting Psalms to comfort the dead in the rubble of the World Trade Center, and while the dead were waiting to be identified and claimed; to Israel’s Zaka, the chevra specializing in Jews killed in terrorist attacks, left the bodies horribly damaged or dismembered.
The study guide includes photos of the simple white linen garments in which the dead are dressed, and also includes an ethereal seven-page essay/imprimatur from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the prominent Orthodox scholar.
Along with Kroll’s high school, the project was supported by the Targum Shlishi Foundation and Berman and Kroll’s former chevra that is now an independent entity but was originally affiliated with Congregation Rosh Pinah, a now-defunct Yonkers congregation. (Most burial societies are synagogue-based, or regional, such as the current Rosh Pinah chevra, which mostly operates in Westchester County).
The curriculum concludes with a field trip to a tahara room where students are divided into small groups that perform a tahara on a mannequin. At a tahara, a candle burns, and a sheet covers the dead. The sheet is momentarily removed from the parts of the body being washed, and as the water is poured, a verse from Ezekiel is recited: “I will pour upon you pure water, and you will be purified … .”
Verses from the Song of Songs are recited. For a man: “His eyes are like doves beside the water brooks … . His mouth is most sweet and he is altogether precious. This is my beloved and this is my friend, daughters of Jerusalem.” And for a women: “A crimson ribbon, your lips, how I listen for your voice … . Your breasts are two fawns, twins of a gazelle, grazing in a field of lilies. You are beautiful, my love, my perfect one.”
The dead, of course, can’t speak their gratitude, but the crew that did the tahara speaks to the soul by name, saying, “We ask forgiveness from you if we did not treat you respectfully … . Go in peace, rest in peace, and arise in your turn at the end of days.”
Before joining the class, said Kroll, “most students were unfamiliar with what happens after somebody dies.” Few expected that something so “mysterious and mostly unspoken had so much to offer.” At first, said Kroll, “some students were a little overwhelmed, but later they asked, ‘Why didn’t we know about this before? This is so important. We should know about this.’”
Kroll said students were impressed by “the dignity given every individual, the equality, how everyone is buried in the same plain pine box,” each with some earth from Israel in the coffin(for burials outside Israel), “wearing the same tachrichim (the white linen outfits), whether this person had his or her name all over the place or was someone that nobody knew. The kids come away with an appreciation for a Jewish community that cares so much for every one of its people,” a caring extending beyond life. “Here are thousands of unpaid volunteers, without fanfare, giving so many hours of their own time, caring for the dead. It made the kids feel proud.”
Students who had experienced a death in their family were not required to participate in the course. One of those students, said Kroll, opted to abstain from the first sessions, but then chose to go with the class to the tahara room, to better understand its mysteries.
The dead sometimes arrive at their taharas bloodstained, in bandages, in lipstick drawn on lips just hours earlier in the innocence of morning, in soiled gowns, but then, said Berman, after the tahara, “it is so uplifting to see the body dressed all in white. The harder the tahara, the more uplifting it is. One woman told me, some people have the gift of a beautiful voice, or they play a musical instrument. My gift is that I can do a tahara.”
For more information, or to obtain “The Final Journey” study guide, contact Rochel Berman at firstname.lastname@example.org.