08 March 2003

Death and Judaism

I hate to always apologise for the lack of recent entries, but as the title above may suggest, we've had a death in the family -- in this case, my wife's grandmother, a beloved figure in the close-knit clan known as the Rubins. Per Jewish tradition, the days immediately following her very unexpected passing have been a flurry of activity and mourning. And now the Florida Film Festival is underway and apart from my posting to my film blog, you'll probaby not see much of me again for another week or so. Sorry. In the meantime, though, let's touch that touchy subject of religion with something rather shorter than a ten-foot pole and see what our poking and prodding reveals. If you fear treading in controversial waters, I have to ask you: what in the world are you doing here when Reader's Digest has a nice safe website?

I myself come from a highly dysfunctional religious background. There was the enforced CofE, the childhood years at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church (lots of good memories there), and lots of interest in oddball religions like Hare Krishna and Deism and Buddhism. Just before I got married into a Jewish family, I took a class about Judaism not in preparation for conversion but for self-enlightenment -- and I promptly discovered that every Christian religion's view of Judaism is completely and utterly incorrect, down to almost every detail.

Ultimately, I have to categorise myself as a Secular Humanist, a value system that is distinct from but not incompatible with Judaism. Both beliefs place high value in the acquisition of solid, provable knowledge; they both state that ultimately people are fully responsible for their own actions; they both decry cruelty and suffering with enormous vigor and (by comparison with most Christians) thoughtful action. Another interesting similarity between Humanism and Judaism ... there's no commandments dictating that we try and shove our beliefs down anyone else's throat. Quite the opposite, in fact. Not like some religions we could name. ;)

Where the two belief systems differ, of course, is in a belief in a Supreme Being who takes an interest or hand in our lives, a belief in a Messiah, and a belief in an afterlife. I don't pretend to know if the Universe follows the grand designs of a Maker, but Humanists believe that any Supreme Being that might be out there has no direct influence on our lives, luck or destiny. Humanists believe that the "soul" is a chemical reaction of the brain and ceases at the moment of death.

That said, I have nothing but admiration and respect for Judaism and the Jewish people. When my in-laws gather for religious occasions, I am not apart from them -- I am with them, I pray with them, and I take their words of faith very seriously. Unlike some people (religious and non-religious), I don't pretend to know that I'm right. I could be wrong. Maybe I'll burn in Hell for eternity, maybe I'll wind up in the next life as a shit-fly as punishment for my heresy. Perhaps I'll be the fellow at the Pearly Gates trying desperately not to avoid Jesus' eye, trying to switch nametags with someone more pious. Beats me. Maybe it really was a white-bearded, insubstantial but definitely Caucasian deity that gave me this darn "free will" and "doubting nature."

But I doubt it. :)

Anyway, what started me on this screed was having to deal with the Jewish Way of Death for really the first time since I've been involved in a Jewish family. There are differences from the way Christians handle this, and similarities. Call me morbid, but I think it's all quite intriguing.

For starters, right from the moment of death there is great urgency placed on getting the body into the ground. No embalming is used and no fancy caskets or any such folderol -- the deceased is cleaned and clad in simple white garments, placed in a plain pine box with a simple shroud. This was instituted, like everything in the Jewish religion, for good reasons that take into account human nature: so that the poor would not be shamed and the wealthy would not compete, and because all humanity is equal before their Maker. We start off equal and we finish up equal -- it's the in-between time where all the trouble starts. :)

The speed of burial seems, to an outside observer, somewhat callous. But again this is founded on common sense and dignity -- since Jews do not use embalming materials (it is considered a desecration of the body), it is logical to bury the body swiftly. It is also a reminder to all that the soul of the person has moved on, as should the mourners. There is no viewing of the body (an insult to the person who is not being seen as they were in life), and no "wake" in the Christian sense. The only "funeral home" is the burial society where Jewish workers clean and prepare the body for burial. As you can imagine, a Jew is not the undertaker's best friend.

At our grandmother's funeral, there was no music, no flowers (again considered inappropriate -- they die!). Just a simple and dignified service, some memories to honour the deceased, and the part I found to be the hardest of all -- the tossing of dirt onto the casket in the ground.

I hate caskets, all kinds -- even the humble pine box the Jewish people use. To have your physical presence, which for many people is a good part of what you are to them, reduced to a rectangular box just rubs me the wrong way. Our grandmother in particular was not a "square" type of person, either physically or mentally. To be compartmentalised like that -- the "ultimate cubicle" as I once described it to someone -- tears at my non-comformist soul. To help bury the deceased by tossing dirt on them seems (again at first) just appalling. It was explained to me later that it is done for symbolic reasons, to help us accept the loss and put it behind us, which makes sense as usual. It still bothers me though.

Indeed, the whole concept of burial in the cold, hard ground is troubling to me. Jews quite naturally abhor the alternative, cremation (a ritual they avoided many millennia before the Holocaust, by the way) as desecration of the body. I see their point, but I still can't help but feel I'd prefer something other than ground burial (which led me to what I think is a great third alternative, but which I'll save for some other morbid post in the future).

Next up is the period known as shivah. Each night, family and friends gather, prayers are said, the deceased is remembered and food is eaten. It's a lot like a wake but more religious, more dignified and with ethnic foods involved. Shivah lasts about a week more or less, and after that you are expected to get on with your own life, secure in the knowledge that the dead have been duly remembered, honoured and prayed for. Friends and neighbours come to help the family with their duties, to promote the sense of community, and to share the burden of loss.

Immediately after that is the resolution of unfinished business the deceased may have left behind. Worldly goods are divided, the will executed and debts paid to the extent possible as quickly as possible. Again to outsiders it may seem a bit calculating, but it's all part of divorcing the memory of the deceased with their now-gone physical presence. Just as the dead live on in the memories, they live on in the things you inherit or the little trinkets you get to remember them by. All in all, I judge it a very healthy, healing process.

I mention all this because the majority of people who read this aren't Jewish, don't know many Jews well enough to have attended a funeral and have little insight into how this ancient religion deals with the second-most important thing in the universe ... the first of course being life. I hope this provides you with a chance to compare and contrast your own faith's with those of Judaism -- not to promote it as superior, but simply to expand the knowledge in the name of wisdom and understanding.

I hope reading all this talk of death has not left you depressed, but dying is something we all have to consider and of course most of us don't bother until we are confronted with it. Despite my decidedly unromantic beliefs that when you die you're dead and that's that, I share with Judaism a profound belief that the dead live on inside us, that their examples shape our lives, that their influence continues to affect us. Religions vary in their views and practices, and even the non-religious have their rituals and traditions, but in the case of Millicent "Mio" Kopman -- our Grandmother -- she really could not have been sent off to what my mother would have called "her Reward" any better, and I suspect it all went pretty much as she would have wanted. Her presence in our lives hasn't diminished one iota -- we were just lucky to have her company for a while.

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