Judaism & Death
One of the things I love about Judaism is the way they handle death.
Hear me out…
When my mum died when I was 20, we were rushed out of the room. Out of sight out of mind. Everyone promptly started to fill us with alcohol and distract us from what had happened. I was young, had no experience with death, and didn’t have the fortitude or confidence to go against the grain.
The funeral was formal. We were distanced from everything about the death and person we were burning. An expensive, heavily decorated coffin was kept far, far away - undertakers were the only ones to touch or move it. It sat behind the pulpit from which a priest who didn’t know us or her made a generic speech about life and death and Jesus that was totally unremarkable to me in every way.
A machine maneuvered the coffin into a furnace at a safe distance from the crowd.
Flowers were everywhere. Thousands and thousands of pounds of beautiful flowers to mask the ugliness of what happened.
We all wore black from head to toe. Suits and blazers and pencil skirts and high-heels and make-up.
We were taken in a procession of hearses.
We went straight to the wake, proceeded to get drunk and try not to think about or talk about what had just happened.
Then everyone disappeared. Forever. No-one talked about it ever again. 13 years later, we’ve still never done a memorial service.
In contrast, here in Israel, it’s raw and intense and painful.
But not anywhere near as painful as mourning alone, trying to just keep calm and carry on and never being able to speak of what happened with your loved ones.
Jewish funerals are brutal, but beautiful in their commitment to confront the truth and deal with the loss.
Everyone gathers around an unceremoniously wrapped up body in a cemetery. One by one friends and family make tearful speeches that have everyone blubbering. There’s often soft wailing in the background. The men and women alike cry and sob.
No hearse, no fancy clothes, no coffin, no flowers. Just a dead body, a hole in the ground and everyone who knew that person gathered to mourn and fully grasp the reality.
A religious figure who is known to the community often manages the event, but loved ones speak and set the pace and tone.
When the time is right, several men volunteer to put the body in the ground and they cover it up with earth themselves.
The “Shiva” is like a “wake” - except it’s about 16 hours a day for a week - and doesn’t feature much alcohol. The family sits while everyone who ever knew or met the deceased comes to visit and sit with them and bring obscene amounts of food, often several times over the seven days.
It’s awkward and messy and hard and sad and I never know what to say. But you all have to face it, together, whether you like it or not because life is hard and death is fucking awful and the poor family can’t escape it so neither can you - because if one day, heaven forbid, you will find yourself in their place, you’ll want every single one of them to just sit with you and talk to you about the person we all loved, the death, then something else for a while, then circle back ad nauseum until you collapse into your bed, spent with grief, but comforted by the fact that you are not alone.
So you’re damn-well going to do it for them, even though you want to run away and hide.
More empathy and compassion than most of us can bear.
Service, community and duty - all unfashionable values in 2021 that living here in Israel has made desirable to me.
And every year, they do a memorial, an “askara” - where again you must face the harsh reality of what you all went through and remember and celebrate the life of the one that passed.
It’s hard, but it feels so healthy and real.
You have to make time to grieve together, and to recover on your own, but there’s no other way. You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it - you HAVE to go THROUGH it.
I’ll be forever grateful that I have been shown a different and beautiful way of dealing with death, together. Always together. . . . . I feel like this one needs a post-script...
Firstly, this post isn't intended to shame or blame anyone about what they did or did not do... it's about the gaping void that's left and it's devastating consequences when there aren't social and spiritual norms that govern the way we deal with rites of passage like death. It's also about taking the good bits from other cultures when one culture does something better than our own and my own experience crossing that great divide.
Secondly, I apologise if my musings about death have permeated your otherwise perfectly pleasant day - I guess if you've got this far I need not apologize. But if you've ever experienced the loss of someone close, you'll be part of a special club where all sorts of morbid thoughts occasionally arise. You might also be less shy about talking about it. You'll also know that reflecting on the death of your loved one is a normal thing that you do over and over again for the rest of your days. It torments you at first, but eventually you realise that valuable lessons can be drawn from the tragedy. For me, writing about it has become very therapeutic and often allows me to discover my true feelings. Sharing it with others has helped me connect to others who have been through similar experiences and fully grasp the gravity and significance of it, as well as come to terms with my own inescapable mortaity. I now find it incredibly hard to separate the harsh reality of death from our daily lives. Once you know, you know.