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.