Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington – November 1989
I am Bob Hausman. I’m a member of Tifereth Israel, a Conservative Congregation on upper 16th Street in the District. I’m also chair of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington. With me is Judith Turner, a past but long-time chair of the TI committee, and the author of many of our materials.
In the early 70s, much of America was aroused by the costs, ostentation and commercialization of funerals. Jessica Mitford had written the American Way of Death, which was to funerals as Silent Spring was to DDT and Unsafe At Any Speed was to automobiles. America reacted in several ways: cooperative burial societies were formed, and the federal trade commission adopted rules requiring funeral homes to disclose their true prices, item by item.
Jews in Milwaukee, San Francisco, Washington and other places looked around, and guess what? When it came to funerals, we found that we were thoroughly Americanized. We had left the Shtetl and the Jewish Burial Society behind. Jewish entrepreneurs, no less than gentile, had added as many products and services to a funeral as they could think of or copy, and were merchandizing them, complete with hype, at the highest prices they could. Funeral homes contained showrooms, offices and salespeople, just like automobile dealerships.
Jewish funeral directors, like their gentile colleagues, sold, and still sell, embalming, and fancy coffins, to all but the knowledgeable and steadfast Orthodox. They also rent large rooms for viewing the deceased and visiting the mourners before the funeral, and impressive funeral chapels. A large, well-dressed staff manages the funeral like a diplomatic reception.
Mourners are told that plain wooden coffins without furniture finish are “only for the very Orthodox,”, and asked “wouldn’t you like a pillow for mother’s head?” They are charged a hefty fee for “preparation of the body.”
In 1975, in an open discussion at a Tifereth Israel retreat, the congregation decided that they would like to take funerals back into the family and the community, to make them holy and meaningful, and to sanctify the name of God by following genuine Jewish ritual practices. They set up a funeral practices committee to study and report.
We studied Jewish law and practice with the help of our rabbi, and decided that Jewish funerals, to be holy, must be simple, inexpensive, equal, involve the deceased’s community and loved ones, and avoid the abominable practices of embalming and displaying the body. Genuine Jewish funerals respect the deceased’s privacy and show love for him or her by tahara, (ritual washing), shmira (accompanying the body to the extent possible from death to burial), and saying goodbye by personally shoveling earth onto the coffin in the grave and not leaving the cemetery until the coffin is covered.
We respect and care for the mourners by advising them, and by relieving them of choosing coffins and arranging funerals. We do the business of funerals for them. We do not burden them by visiting them before their lost relative is in the ground. We help them with shiva and kaddish services if they want it, and we bring them a meal of condolence after the funeral. The funerals usually take place in our synagogues and temples, where they feel at home and where they worshipped with the deceased.
When we decided what we wanted to do, we went to the Jewish funeral directors and asked them to cooperate with us. To make a very long story – about two years long – in short, they refused. We them consulted our rabbi, a very conservative halachic gentleman. He consulted the sources, other rabbis and the seminary, and he advised us that it would be quite proper to use the facilities and services of a gentile funeral home. In fact, they only provide us with facilities; all of the religious duties are performed by the congregational community.
After a few years’ experience, Tifereth Israel invited other congregations to join us in the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington. We found that there was no halachic barrier for the Orthodox; other Conservative congregations felt just as we did; and the Reform congregations agreed with us on everything except tahara, the washing, and shmira, the accompanying. We now have one Orthodox congregation, 6 Conservative, 7 Reform, and 3 B’nai B’rith lodges; 14 in all. Our contract with Ives-Pearson provides a complete funeral, including coffin, for $571. In Calendar 1988, Ives-Pearson helped us with 143 funerals under our contract. I’d like to emphasize that the key is holiness and community; we don’t offer a consumer product at a bargain price. Rather, we invite you to take your funerals back and to care for your dead and your mourners in your community, as Jews did until only a few generations ago.