Tuesday, April 10, 2012

J is for...


Jill!  That's her in the middle.


Today on the death writer blog, I've invited Jill Brodsky to post about Jewish customs surrounding death, something that impacted her growing up.  Why am I having a guest blogger?  Well, there are several reasons.  For one, I'm busier than a three-balled tomcat with this A to Z challenge and the volunteer duties at my kids' school with the Scholastic Book Fair. Second, I didn't have a post for J and Jill e-mailed me out of the blue a couple of days ago.  It was totally serendipitous and when those signs from the universe appear, I like to take advantage of them.  And lastly, I'm going through some minor medical issues that I dealt with a few years ago that I wrote about in my book.  Okay, you're probably wondering what they are, so I'll just go ahead and tell you.  I've got a nodule on my thyroid and doctors like to stick a large hollow needle into my neck to check if its cancer and I've got a whole month of waiting before that happens.  Me and Google need to stay far, far away from each other right now.

So, how do I know Jill?  Well, we met my first semester of grad school at Goucher College, where we had the same mentor, Diana Hume George.  Long story short, Jill was writing about her love of rats when I met her, and then a year later, she won the Chris White Award for personal essay about experiencing a brain hemorrhage at 17.  Jill is a vegetarian, a blogger and the proud parent of two weenie dogs.


So here she is...
Hi.  My name is Jill and I am Jewish.  I recently sent Pam a brief note about my relationship with death as a Jew in response to what I have been reading in her A-Z challenge and some other posts.  She has requested that I be a guest blogger for the day of “J” (for Jill?  For Judaism?) and I am flattered.  I will say that the following is what I have learned as a Reform Jew (as opposed to Orthodox, for example) in the United States.  I have had this information looked over by other Jews to ensure accuracy but I do apologize if what you may know is different.  Judaism is also a religion that encourages interpretation by the individual and this is how I interpret what I have learned.

Of all the life cycle and tradition lessons that I sat through in religious school, death was really the biggest thing for me.  I vividly remember our parents were invited to stay one Sunday (yes, Jews have Sunday school) and we watched a video called The Plain Pine Box, which pretty much explained everything behind the Jewish funeral and burial process. If you were super religious you wouldn’t even have a casket because that is a barrier between you and the earth, but a plain pine box is the next best thing. It also has to do with federal and state requirements for burials stating that you must have a casket.  Those fancy schmancy caskets? Waste of money. And a good way to keep your body from decomposing into the earth like it should. That's not to say that many Jews don’t get some upgraded caskets that are polished and shiny, but they are always wood.  But ever since that movie I have been "dead" set on a plain pine box. Why spend loads on something fancy that will just go into the ground where nobody can see it? 

When I went to Israel a few years ago I found out that at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem where the war dead are buried, it was only recently deemed OK to bury in caskets at all.  Because modern warfare is so brutal and can leave the deceased in more than one piece, the reform was thought necessary.  It was hard not to think about the soldiers that were with us, their friends who died in battle, and what might happen to all them. 


In Judaism we don't have open casket wakes, either.  I realized this difference between Christian funerals and Jewish funerals when I was pretty young and I’m sure it was explained to me many times over as to why we Jews don’t view the body pre-burial.  My favorite way that it was explained to me was that it is not respectful to look at somebody when that person cannot look back at you. That in itself hit me deeply at a young age.  The dead body cannot look back at you.  We are respecting the dead. We also give a 6-month period before dedicating a grave and giving it a headstone so that the soul can find its way to its final resting place, so it's not like the soul can look back, either.

As for embalming, we don't do that because it is unnatural and takes away part of the body that should go back to the earth. It preserves the body, too. We don't want to preserve the body.  You know the saying “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”?  Since we come from dust, we must go back to dust and any sort of preservation or postponing a burial will keep the body from going back to dust.  We bury our deceased as soon after the actual death as possible.

I love the Jewish way of dealing with death and the dead body. No fancying up a dead body, a lot of respect involved, and a lot of focus on celebrating the life that was. The wedding, birth, bar and bat mitzvah lessons? Flew by me. Death is what really got me.

26 comments:

  1. Good luck with your test results, I'm wishing you all the best.

    Jill, thank you for sharing your experiences of the Jewish way of dealing with death and the dead body. A lot of what you said sounded really beautiful and respectful. It really struck a note with me, and I think I'll incorporate some of the ideas into my own funeral when the time comes.

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  2. Thank you, Clare.

    I think the whole not looking at the dead because they can't look back struck me the most. And that's probably why I lean towards cremation.

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  3. Me too, Pamela! That phrase hit me pretty hard. (I may lift it for use in my novel, actually.)

    I've always felt strange about the idea of being put into a box, and felt strongly the need to go back into the earth when I'm done. I wonder if it's something I inherited with my Jewishness, along with a love of Klezmer and a fondness for Shlemiel stories? None of us are religious, so the customs kind of stayed out of my childhood beyond a basic Shabbat prayer. I found it really beautiful to read. Thank you!

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  4. That was very interesting. I just want to have a small family only gathering and then be cremated. But on the subject both my parents are in their 70's now and told us the stories of when they were younger and they would bring the casket to the homes and the family would set up with the dead.

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    1. Lots of people used to die at home. Then we moved people to hospitals to die. There is a return movement, especially for those who choose hospice, to die at home. That's what I want. I'd rather be comfortable and not have everything so clinical.
      Thanks for commenting!

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  5. Very interesting post! I heard somewhere that during the mourning period, you keep mirrors covered? Is that true, and if yes, what's the reason for it?

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    1. I'm gonna let Jill answer that question. Jill? Jill?

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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    2. Well, I had never heard of that but I just asked my mom. Mom's are great like that. And just as mom should, she directed me to a book, in this case the Jewish Book of Why. There are several possible reasons given, but the most popular is that looking at one's image is a sign of vanity and mourning is not a time for vanity. Also, since man was created in the image of G-d, to see himself in the sorry state of mourning is not a compliment to G-d. Good question!

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  6. Very cool. I want to see one of these pine boxes I'm sure Google can help. I agree with Pam, die at home in a non clinical manner and go straight to the crematorium then on vacation to the golden gate bridge for a swim.

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    1. If I go first, Erik, you're going to have to be super careful about sprinkling me in the bay. I think the city of San Francisco probably has some strict rules about that. Maybe you could put me in a salt shaker and just go nuts all over the city:)

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    2. My good friend's cousin died of cancer and had his ashes distributed between friends and family around the country and asked them to spread his remains in places he loved most. Her portion was in a pill bottle and had a tooth in it (they are hardest to burn, I guess?).

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    3. Oh, now that would be a wee bit disturbing. Although, I'm sure I'd get over it. I saved my wisdom teeth and my kids' teeth, so I'm used to it. J is for teeth jewelry!

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  7. I handled a vile of ashes from Budda a few times when I was on the preparation crew for the exhibition Imperial Tombs of China.

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    1. Did you open it up and take a look see? I know you didn't:)

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  8. Interesting post! And it makes so much sense. I've always wondered about the embalming and fancy caskets. Why prolong the inevitable? I wish my maternal grandfather, who was a mortician, was still alive so I could ask him.

    Been there, done that with the needle in the thyroid. I wish you the best!

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  9. Thanks Jenny! That's cool that you had a mortician in the family. I guess none of your family members followed in his footsteps.

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  10. I, too, prefer the simplicity with which Jews handle death. I particularly like our tradition of having the family and friends do the burying (thus, keeping the ritual a personal matter) and having each person's first shovelful done with the shovel's blade upside down (to demonstrate the reluctance in the act). I only wish I hadn't had so much experience with all these traditions the past few years...

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    1. Okay, now I have questions which either you or Jill can answer. Is the funeral home completely eliminated since there is no embalming? Or do you have to go to them to obtain the plain box?
      I think we are at our most vulnerable when we've experienced a loss, so knowing a plan in advance is the best option. I'm just curious.
      Also, is cremation an option?

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    2. The funeral home is still a part of the process because there is still a funeral service. The body is also cleansed before burial so it is "pure" before going back to dust.

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  11. interesting insight into death. i aim to be cremated.

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  12. The actual "viewing" component of funerals has always bothered me more than anything else about our "burial culture." I don't want people gawking at my cold, dead self. And pine boxes are my preference, for all the reasons you've stated. Funeral flowers, a satin pillow, brushed bronze, and other embellishments, are all useless to me. Give me the smell of freshly turned earth, reminiscent of the vegetable garden I plant every year, and the sweet, musky scent of planed pine boards. And please leave the flowers in the ground, where they will grow and thrive and complete their own life cycle.

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    1. You sure are poetic, Claire:) Somehow I know it's you.

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  13. As a former embalmer, I'd never allow myself to be subjected to such treatment. I live in a Muslim country now, and I like their funeral customs. They are quite similar to the Jewish customs of no embalming, immediate burial and no viewing, etc.

    Re the thyroid thing... rest easy Dear, thyroid cancer is relatively rare. I'll be you a dinar you end up having a follicular adenoma which is very benign. I had one removed that was about the size of a baseball some years back. As surgeries go, it was easy, peasy! Good luck!

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    1. Okay, Jim, since you are a former embalmer, I've got some questions. In fact, I think I'd like for you to be a guest blogger if you'd like to share some of your experiences.
      And on the thyroid thing, you are absolutely correct--the chances of this tiny nodule being cancer is 5%. It's rare. I'm not super worried. They did the FNA two years ago (but they had to do it two times because the first one was inconclusive)so I'm familiar with the procedure. I don't like it very much because I'm kind of a wuss.
      OMG! The size of a baseball? Geez! My great Aunt had a goiter that was huge, but this was waaaay back in the day and they didn't do anything.
      I'm gonna contact you about doing a post:)

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Comments are welcome and appreciated!