In Judaism, volunteers from the community undertake the preparations of the dead for burial. The organization for the purpose is a burial society, a Chevra Kadisha. This book is on one hand a very practical guide to creating and running a Chevra Kadisha, and of the rituals involved in performing tahara – the washing, purification and dressing of the deceased – in detail, and from the point of view of those experienced in the task. On the other hand, the author reflects on the personal impact of being part of the Chevra, on the physical and emotional challenges of the task. There are chapters on how to best inform the uninformed, and fascinating sections on dignity in the wake of terrorism and of the Holocaust.
There is a strong obligation upon Jewish communities to conduct proper burials. Each city has a designated burial society. The model of all recent burial societies was begun in Prague, in 1564. Its current home was built in 1911 and still exists in part because Hitler allegedly wanted to make the Jewish district a museum of an extinct race. Some years ago, I visited the burial society and was struck by the collection of objects that would have been used in tahara – the silver scissors for the trimming of nails, the jugs and bowls for water, the fine combs for hair. There was a stark contrast to the list of the dead hand-painted on the walls of the synagogue next door, accompanied by the sure and painful knowledge that they had been killed needlessly during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and without the benevolent attention of a Chevra.
Rochel Berman has written about the most difficult, awkward and painful details in a straightforward, readable and sensitive manner. There is a great range of experiences from Chevra volunteers in the book – examples include attending to an elderly person whose life has run its natural course, accompanying a child who has died in a road accident and the challenges of terrorist attacks in Israel. An important principle of tahara is that blood which flows at the time of death be considered as part of the body and represents the soul, and so must be buried with the deceased. ZAKA is an Israeli organization dedicated to identifying disaster and terrorist victims. It has a Chevra Kadisha whose members collect blood and body parts after an incident. Co-mingled blood is buried separately, in ‘graves of brothers’.
Berman’s chapters on the Holocaust and terrorism describe the ways in which Judaism has responded to the challenges of burial – if a Jew dies at the hands of a non-Jew for being a Jew, no tahara need be performed. The dead go to graves dressed exactly as they were at the time of death. In a section on the World Trade Center disaster, the practice of Shmira is described. There is an obligation to ‘guard’ the body until burial and so hundreds of volunteers were organized and took turns reading tehillim (psalms) at the site. However, I did wonder what would happen to the body of a Jewish murderer or criminal upon death.
As I read the book, the pervasive sense of benevolence made the greatest impression on me. Volunteers gift the service – it is not a commercial endeavour. The principles of tahara are essentially about respect for the individual. Those who perform it do so in a non-judgemental way, with the identity of the person always at the fore – the deceased is never ‘a thing’. Tahara is seen to be of benefit to the community as well as to the deceased and their family and friends.
There are many misconceptions about tahara in the Jewish community. Berman has conducted informal surveys and asserts that even in traditional homes, the subject is not discussed. Some customs – Brit Milah (ritual circumcision), bar/bat mitzvah (coming of age rituals), chuppah (the canopy at a wedding), and sitting shiva (mourning ritual) after a funeral – are commonly understood. Publically conducted rituals such as fasting on Yom Kippur:
are maintained even when they are not accompanied by much knowledge or understanding. People are less aware of those mitzvot [commandments] performed privately and intimately. This is certainly true in the area of death and tahara – the most intimate aspect of death. (p. 171)
Berman’s book gives a clear, educational guide that is of use and interest to Jewish and non-Jewish people. At its heart is her story of discovering the processes of tahara on the death of her father and her determination to then perform it and demystify it for the benefit of the community. She illuminates the dark, taboo recesses of death-talking with clear, no-nonsense prose. Her tales will be of interest to academics studying death and related rituals. The impact of dealing with death on those who perform the rituals is of particular interest to the medical humanities – the degrees of bearing witness to such experience is a measure of the emotional health of a community.
This book caught my attention for personal reasons. I am not religious and have long been interested in the practices around death. My Catholic great-grandmother lived in a small mining town in the north-east of England. When she died, my mother, still a child, found some long, narrow sheets amongst her belongings. She was puzzled by them and asked her mother what they were.
“They are the laying-out sheets” came the reply. “Your grandma was the woman in the street people came to when someone had died.”
She would lay the dead on those sheets, wash them and take care of them whilst those who were left were mourning. The dead stayed at home, in the front room of the house, for at least the night before burial.
In this more secular age, the care of the dead is given to funeral directors. We pay them for the service. As Berman notes, this is an honour we lose and an honour we take away from the deceased.
The dead are distanced sooner. This book prompted me to think of what we have lost.
Reviewed by Mary Robson, who trained as a theatre designer and now works as a creative facilitator and social pedagogue – she works with people to make things. Mary is Associate for Arts in Health and Education at the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University and is currently creative facilitator on two Wellcome Trust–funded research projects at Durham University – Hearing the Voice and The Life of Breath. Her role there is to build the community of the researchers, with a particular emphasis on interdisciplinarity and transferable methodology.
Mary’s influential work in schools focuses on the social and emotional development of children through longitudinal arts-based projects that put children in the driving seat of cultural change. Mary was awarded a NESTA Fellowship to explore the concept of the artist as social pedagogue in schools and communities, and has received a Royal Society of Public Health award for ‘innovative and outstanding contributions to arts and health’.
Correspondence to Mary Robson
You can follow Mary on Twitter via @mary_robson