A Community Reasserts Religious Values in Funeral Ritual
By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 1998; Page B01
When Ezra Gratz’s battle with illness ended in death, the family immediately called its synagogue, Adas Israel. By the time his wife and children got home from the hospital, Sybil Wolin was on the doorstep, offering to be their companion in the difficult days ahead.
Wolin is chairman of Adas Israel’s bereavement committee, which assists grieving families through the ordeal of death and makes sure the deceased is buried according to Jewish law, which prescribes a round-the-clock vigil and a ritual cleansing of the body called tahara.
When Robert Gratz’s 78-year-old father died in 1996, the committee’s help “was incredibly wonderful” and gave relatives “time to grieve and deal with family issues,” said Gratz, a lawyer and the youngest of the late Washington dentist’s three sons. It also was comforting, he said, that his father’s body was prepared for burial “by people who cared truly that things were being done in accordance with Jewish laws and traditions.”
The Northwest Washington synagogue’s bereavement committee reflects the efforts of many faith communities, not just Jews, to reassert traditional religious values and customs when dealing with death and to gain more control over how members’ funerals and burials are conducted.
“Many religious groups are revolting at the materialistic aspect of many contemporary funerals and are eager to return a spiritual ingredient to the funeral rituals,” said Lisa Carlson, author of the forthcoming book “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love.”
St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Rockville also has a bereavement committee to assist families in the days after the death of a loved one. And members of the church’s Society of Arimatheans — named for St. Joseph of Arimathea, who helped bury Christ after his crucifixion — are “altar servers” at funerals.
“This is considered a ministry in our parish,” said the society’s chairman, Jim Ryan, a retired government physicist who lives in Potomac.
At St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Silver Spring, the bereavement committee is being expanded so parishioners will know “there is support from the community” at times of death, said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Francis Kazista. St. John’s also allows families to hold the wake at the church instead of at a funeral home if they wish.
For the deceased, “it’s their last visit [to the church], and we keep them overnight,” Kazista said. There is no charge for the wake or the funeral, although offerings are often made by the family.
Muslims, who wash the deceased in a rite similar to that by Jews, usually call an official of their mosque to perform the ritual, according to a spokesman for the Afghan Academy, an Islamic community group in Stafford, Va. If none is available, it is done by family members.
Adas Israel’s bereavement committee, whose Hebrew name, hevra kadisha, means “holy society,” is modeled after groups whose roots go back to biblical times.
For ages, said senior Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, the mission of caring for the dead has been considered one of Judaism’s great mitzvoth, or commandments, “because it’s one for which the person for whom it’s being performed cannot repay.”
“We are trying to keep death, burial, the handling of our deceased and the comforting of the bereaved within our community,” said Wolin, who founded Adas Israel’s committee about seven years ago and organizes the 80 or so volunteers who are on call to help during a death.
Those who serve on the committee take care of such details as obtaining the death certificate, placing the obituary, calling the cemetery to prepare a grave, contacting the funeral home and helping conduct the post-burial mourning period called shiva. The shomrim, or watchers, organize the pre-burial vigil, during which Psalms are recited over the deceased. Still others specialize in tahara.
The committee is motivated in large part by the desire to follow traditional Jewish funeral practices. Wolin, a developmental psychologist who lives in the District, said those practices “fell into total disuse” among most American Jews as commercial funeral homes became widely used.
“I think there was a real commercial exploitation of death, and Jews fell prey to it like everyone else,” she said.
Underlying Jewish funeral law are the principles that “everyone is equal in the face of death” and that “death is faced without masquerades,” Wolin added. “It is faced squarely, dust to dust.”
Jewish law prohibits embalming and cosmeticizing the body, which should be wrapped in a simple white shroud and buried — ideally within 24 hours after death — in a plain wooden coffin with no metal, not even nails. Jewish law also discourages public viewing of the body, calling the practice disrespectful.
As a mark of respect and love, because it once held life, the body of the deceased is ritually washed and purified with water. This is done “in a tremendously respectful way,” said Wolin, with those in attendance asking “permission and forgiveness . . . for any indiscretion committed during the act of preparation for burial.”
“I find that it is a very moving experience for me,” said Gail Schwartz, of Chevy Chase, who performs the cleansing and purification ritual. “You treat the body with care, respect and gentleness. And it’s very comforting to me to know that when my time comes, my body will be treated that way.”
Schwartz said she believes that the end of life “is just as spiritual and moving and awesome as the beginning of life.” When she is doing tahara, “I really feel there is a difference between the body and spirit or soul. . . . We’re not just bones and skins. There’s a spirit inside of us; there’s a soul. And it’s always made clear to me then.”
Those who perform tahara — men do men and women do women — are not announced to the congregation to maintain respect and privacy for the deceased. But that members of the deceased’s own synagogue are tenderly preparing the deceased for burial creates “a sense of connectedness in the congregation,” Rabbi Wohlberg said.
Increasingly, funerals are being held at synagogues, not funeral parlors. The body is placed in the coffin with broken shards, symbolizing the fragility of life, and a handful of Israeli soil. Traditional Jews believe the dead will gather and be resurrected in Israel when the Messiah comes.
After burial, the bereavement committee shifts its focus to the family and helps with the mourning period.
Most Jewish congregations in the Washington area now have bereavement committees, though not all ask their own members to prepare the body. Those congregations usually call on a volunteer group that does the ritual washing as a community-wide service.
Adas Israel’s bereavement committee belongs to the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington, which represents about 25 or so congregations with such committees, said its chairman, Robert M. Hausman. This group has negotiated with a local funeral home to provide services, such as a room to perform tahara and transportation to the cemetery, for all the member congregations at the same price.
Although Orthodox Jews never abandoned traditional Jewish rituals at death, “the non-Orthodox pretty well let commercial funeral directors take over. . . . And they got bad advice,” Hausman said.
At his father’s funeral at a New York City funeral home, “there was embalming, he was in a business suit, and there was cosmeticizing. He was laid out in an open coffin, with people coming to see him before the funeral and coming to talk to the mourners” — practices that now seem “abhorrent” to Hausman.
The services of Adas Israel’s bereavement committee are optional, but Wolin estimates that about two-thirds of the congregation’s families have turned to it for help.
Barry Leibowitz did when his 48-year-old wife, Zandy, died of cancer in 1995. The committee’s support “gave me a new appreciation for my religion,” the Wheaton lawyer said. But its “greatest effect was with my children,” who learned that “there is a tradition to follow and a way you do things.”
Having a service that actively involved the congregation “was more meaningful to them than the type of [funeral parlor] services they saw for their grandmother and grandfather,” Leibowitz said. “I think this worked better for them by a mile than a commercial funeral home.”
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