How has the American experience
changed the Jewish approach
to death and mourning?
ported to Detroit through New York.
The shrouds, which were once
woven by a family member, are now
mass-produced in New York and
come packaged in cardboard boxes.
The shrouds, which look a little like
the smocks worn by hospital
patients, consist of undergarments,
the kittel which is worn over them
and the sovev, which is wrapped
around the body, separating it from
the casket. A covering is also placed
on a male's head.
"Nothing should be permanent,"
Rabbi Levin emphasizes. The
shrouds are fastened with slip knots
rather than permanent knots.
Hochheiser, who performs
taharah in addition to his other
duties, demonstrates how the
shrouds' ties are looped at the ankles
to form the Hebrew letter shin. The
ties are also twisted four times to
represent the letter dalet and the
body is considered to represent the
letter yod, spelling Shadai, one of
the names of God.
Beth Olem, one of Detroit's oldest cemeteries. The land in
Poletown was purchased in 1862.
Jews believe in "ashes to ashes,
dust to dust as quickly as possible,"
says Hochheiser. He explains the
"but it's a chesed, a kindness for the
this procedure; Kaufman Chapel will
local custom of dabbing a mixture of
upon request. The shomer's station
egg and wine on the forehead of the
Chesed Shel Emet, literally
is in an adjoining room, but in full
deceased, where the tefillin would
"True Kindness," besides being the
view of the refrigerator door.
have been in life, as a symbol of de-
name for the mitzvah of burial, is
Inside the prep room, the body is
also the Hebrew name for Hebrew
completely washed, nails are cleaned
Why would someone want to
Memorial Chapel, one of two Jewish
and hair is washed and brushed.
join such a "society of death?" Tradi-
funeral homes in the Detroit area.
Care is taken to protect the modesty
tionally, chesed- shel emet is regarded
The other is the Ira Kaufman
of the body.
as one of the highest mitzvot that
"It's not spooky, the bodies are
one can perform, because it is the
On a tour of Hebrew Memorial's
prepared carefully," Rabbi Levin
only mitzvah in which there is no
facilities, Hochheiser and Assistant
says. The workers do not speak dur-
hope of being paid back.
Executive Director Rabbi Boruch
ing the 20-to-25-minute procedure,
In the past, Jews who attended
Levin explain how a Jew is prepared
save what is necessary to do their
the dead were known as the Holy
for burial. The body is first given a
work. "It's beautiful, the feeling of
Society, Chevrah Kadishah. "In
ritual washing, called taharah, be-
purity comes through. We treat the
Europe every little town had its own
fore it is wrapped in shrouds, tac-
body with the same holiness that we
Chevrah Kadishah," says Rabbi Le-
hrichim, and finally placed in the
treat a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll)."
vin. The work was done "by the elite
Twenty-four quarts of water are
members of the community. It was
Hebrew Memorial has two prep
poured from three buckets in a con-
something that was looked up to."
rooms for taharah, one for each sex.
tinuous flow, covering the body from
The traditional burial society
The rooms appear rather clinical,
head to toe. This is the equivalent of
has, in the main, given way to the
each prep room - is equipped with a
an immersion in a mikveh, ritual
modern funeral home. Hebrew
sink, counter, cupboard and work,
bath, Rabbi Levin explains. ,
Memorial is a unique cross of the :
table: Candles burn on a shelf in
Traditionally, a,handful of earth', two. Pounded in 1916 as, the, Hebre*
each porn and in the coolers which
from Israel As_ placed in the casket., - .Bene,volent Society ; _itis-a non=profit
house the bodies _until_ the' ,funeral.
One of the prep room-- cupboarsts,con n ,organization, according) toAts - 'direcl -flu!
Jewish law disallows embalming and
tains little plastic bags of earth from
tor, Rabbi Israel Rockove. Hebrew
Memorial is funded by 3,000 dues-
V v V V k k k V 4V . .1? k V V A,
ver the millenia, Judaism
has fashioned a survival sys-
tem for mourners, holding
them within the context of
the living, separating sur-
vivors from the dead, providing an
anchor to keep the one in grief from
slipping into an abyss of absolute
How has the assimilation of
American Jews modified the tradi-
tional Jewish customs relating to
death and mourning? And how have
changing practices altered the way
we view death and the prospect of
mourning? What have we lost in the
process and what have we gained?
Judaism stresses the inevitabil-
ity of death and its integral place in
the natural order of things. When
God completed the world, He saw
that it was "very good." Rabbi Meir
remarked in the Talmud that this
passage refers to death.
There is a certain beauty to
Jewish traditions of death, burial
and mourning: an absolute respect
accorded the deceased and a detailed
"program" to care for the needs of
the living, paths which were set mil-
lenia ago on which Jews still tread
According to Jewish tradition, a
dying person should never be left
alone, nor should the body of a dead
person, which is considered defense-
less and so must be constantly
guarded until it is buried.
A shomer, or watcher, sits near
the body, reading Psalms. Tradi-
tionally, the feet of the deceased
were turned toward the door and a
lighted candle was placed at his
head. These practices conjure up im-
ages from a time when most people
died at home in their own bed. Now-
adays, much has changed.
Jewish tradition stresses a
prompt burial. This constraint may
cause relatives of the deceased to
wish they had more time to get over
the initial shock of the death, to
make funeral arrangements without
pressure, to contact all the relatives
and friends:, :,, ; - -, - .,.-', ....z-,., -, . ` `,'
"0-n theJoutside (this cUsiom 'of;
prompt burial) looks very ,harsh,"
says Michael Hochheiser, adminis-
trator of Hebrew Memorial Park,