Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tahara for burial makes the NYT

Rabbi Carie Carter, left, and two volunteers, Carol Diamond and Ilene Rubinstein, learned about ritual emersion from Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, right.
Published: December 12, 2010
The volunteers are taught to begin at the head, washing the face before proceeding to the neck and right shoulder. The right side is to be washed before the left side, the front before the back. There are prayers to say. Small talk is forbidden.
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Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips explained how to prepare a coffin for burial. “What we do with the body at the end of life,” she said, “is very much like what we do with a child when it is born,” including washing the body and swaddling it in clean cloth.

The Jewish protocol for tending to the dead governs almost every interaction between the living and the deceased from the moment of death until burial. The ritual, which has been part of religious law for two millenniums, mandates the protection of the physical and spiritual remains.

But for many decades, most Jews in the United States have lost touch with those protocols — if they have ever heard of them — in favor of conventional funeral home services that replace volunteers with professionals who, by their nature, skip the more metaphysical and personal elements of the process.

Now, a movement to restore lost tradition has motivated a new generation of Jewish volunteers to learn a set of skills that was common knowledge for many of their great-grandparents: the rituals of bathing, dressing and watching over the bodies of neighbors and friends who have died.

It is a nationwide revival propelled in almost equal parts, experts say, by an emerging sense of mortality among baby boomers, a reaction against the corporate character of the funeral home industry and a growing cultural receptivity to past spiritual practices, even some that make many people squeamish.

Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, the founder and director of Vaad Harabonim of Queens, a national association of rabbis who promote traditional burial, has crisscrossed the country in recent years teaching the philosophy and technique. He described the approach as attending not just to the bodies, but also to “the feelings of the dead.”

“We don’t think of this being we are preparing for burial as a ‘body,’ ” said Rabbi Zohn, an Orthodox Jew whose knowledge of burial tradition is mainly sought after by the non-Orthodox. “It’s a person; and that person in our view is still alive in a parallel world, very much aware of what’s happening.”

People who can approach a deceased person in that spirit, he said, are potential members of a “chevra kadisha,” translated variously as a burial or sacred society.

In the New York region and on Long Island, where he has concentrated his efforts, Rabbi Zohn estimates that 25 percent of Jewish burials today incorporate the burial rituals, compared with about 2 or 3 percent 15 years ago.

His estimates are consistent with national trends, said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, or Honor and Comfort, a Washington center for information on Jewish burial practice. “From approximately zero in the 1970s and ’80s, we now have literally hundreds of chevra kadishas operating in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, San Francisco, you name it,” Mr. Zinner said.

Two books, he added, are considered among the revival’s seminal influences: “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s 1963 exposé about the funeral industry, and “A Plain Pine Box,” a 1981 work in which Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman describes a Minneapolis synagogue’s return to traditional burial practices.

For the most part, the volunteer tradition has been maintained in Orthodox communities, which make up about 20 percent of the American Jewish population, and lost among the others — Reform, Conservative or unaffiliated.

Members of the Park Slope Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation in Brooklyn that did not have a burial society within anyone’s memory, started a society about seven years ago, after the deaths of two congregation members in quick succession, both young mothers.

Rabbi Carie Carter, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, said the emotional aftershock of those deaths seemed to reveal a missing link in the chain of the community’s ties. There were temple groups organized for visiting the sick, and others for visiting families when a relative died. “But we were missing that space in between, caring for the dead themselves,” Rabbi Carter said.

In 2003, she and a member of the congregation, Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, a social worker whose interest had evolved from her work in 9/11 disaster relief, organized the Park Slope chevra kadisha with a handful of volunteers. There are now 70, about one in seven members of the congregation.

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