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Jewish Burial - A Study in the Psychology of Healing

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 Jewish Burial - A Study in the Psychology of Healing

Dr. Batya L. Ludman,Psy.D. F.T.

As a child, I remember vividly the half dozen or so nights a year that my father would leave our house somewhat late in the evening, return about 1 1/2 hours later and talk with my mother in hushed tones. As I moved into adolescence, I became aware that my father's "outings" involved going to the local funeral home to prepare yet another Jewish man in our small community for ritual burial. Now, thirty-five years later, my children witness my leaving when a call comes that a woman in our community has died.  While there is a list of maybe 6 or 7 women to choose from, people are often away or unavailable. The woman on the other end states that, "if I can make it, I am very much needed." As a result, I drop whatever I am doing and offer to go and help out. It is 10:00 p.m. and as I kiss my sleeping children on the cheek, I say a silent goodbye. When I get into my car and head for the funeral home, I run through my own mental checklist- I have changed my clothes, left behind my jewelry and donned a head covering. I arrive at the funeral home and meet two other women who like myself, have left behind their busy lives and their families, to complete the task at hand.  These are women who are lawyers, in business or whom in any other circumstance, you would not expect to see at a funeral home. I become very much aware, that I am a partner in the cycle of life and death as it once again repeats itself from generation to generation.

I am by profession, a clinical psychologist. As such, I face the pain of loss with my patients on a daily basis.  It was however, not until after the death of my mother, that I became involved with the Chevra Kadisha, the holy burial society. My father, a very wise and kind man, always praised Judaism for the way in which it dealt with death in a most reverent, albeit realistic manner. Perhaps, he too had in some way noted the many parallels between what is prescribed religiously and the psychological stages of grief and healing.  Judaism's many customs and traditions provide the necessary structure, during this period of major loss, for a gradual re-entry into society. I will attempt to explain this in some detail.

Typically, when a Jewish person dies, he is, out of great respect, buried within 24 hours. From death until burial, the deceased is "watched over" by members of the community who recite psalms and stay with the body. With few exceptions, there are no autopsies.  Embalming is typically carried out only when state regulations require it for travel purposes and cremation is simply not part of the Jewish belief. Just prior to the funeral service, mourners tear or rend their garments (Keriah), an act symbolic of the pain that is felt as they are torn apart by their loss. The funeral itself is brief (usually under a half an hour), simple and very much focused on honoring and eulogizing the deceased. The burial follows and it too is brief and participatory. Family and friends often help the deceased on the way to his eternal resting place by actually helping to cover the casket with earth. It is often at this point, that the mourner is hit with the stark reality that their loved one has died. It is not until after the burial that one can get on with the grieving process and Judaism sees no inherent value in delaying this. As the mourners leave the graveside, they are formally and informally comforted by everyone present and one sees that the focus changes from honoring the dead to providing comfort for the living. Following burial, a period of Shiva, 7 days of intense mourning, are observed. During this time, the mourners very often stay together in the home of the deceased where they spend much of their time together. The mirrors are covered, the mourners wear non leather shoes or slippers and sit on low stools. There are daily prayer services, the mourners remain at home, refrain from marital relations and they do not go to work. All are signs of the mourner's inward focus during this period of intense grief. The family is encouraged to receive visitors from the community. The mourners are fed a meal of consolation immediately upon return from the cemetery and neighbors often make and feed the family throughout the entire week. Shiva truly helps to comfort the bereaved family as it enables them to work through their loss and emerge from this period of intense pain. The home of the deceased is often filled with people, many of whom have wonderful stories to tell of their relationship with the deceased. Time passes as the mourner moves through that first week and the healing process truly does begin in earnest. It was during this Shiva period that a close personal friend of my mother's visited our home and in conversation, informed me of just how peaceful and beautiful my mother looked in death, as she had been one of the women who had "prepared her." These words by such a caring and respected woman in the community were both very calming and comforting. It was at that time that I expressed to her, my interest in joining the Chevra Kadisha and in some small way, possibly being able to give back to someone in mourning, what she had just given to me. Her answer to me was one of true kindness. She said that while they would like very much to have me, they wanted me to wait a few months, and if I was still interested, they would call me.

I got that call a few months later. As I went off into the night to "prepare" my first body, I remembered my dad's words," I'll be back soon. "I learned a tremendous amount that night. I learned that preparing a body ritually (Taharah) was without a doubt one of the most dignified experiences imaginable. We began by asking forgiveness of the deceased for anything done or about to be done. Then while fully respecting her privacy in every way, her body was washed from head to toe. Her hair was combed, her nails cleaned and a soft linen shroud, similar to that worn by every other Jewish woman was put on. Prayers were said both within and outside the room and the woman was gently laid in a casket. Jewish tradition encourages equality of humankind. As we enter the world with nothing, so too do we depart in the same way. Her casket was a simple pine box, identical to those of other members of the community who predeceased her. The family, at this extremely vulnerable period of time, had no decisions to make with respect to clothing, casket, or burial arrangements. This is all taken care of by the Chevra Kadisha. As is our custom not to leave the woman alone until the time of the funeral, the Chevra Kadisha also arranged for people to stay with the body.  Some of the women of the Chevra Kadisha then met with the family of the deceased to review the events of the next day-the funeral and what they would find upon their return home.

After the first 7 days, and during the period of Shloshim, the 30 days after burial, the mourner is encouraged to make a gradual return to many of the activities of daily living, while acknowledging that not enough time has passed for a full return. As such, social activities, hair cutting, shaving and many other activities are still not performed. As one leaves the house and gradually returns to work, the numbness begins to wear off, yet the mourner's pain is still fresh enough and he can derive tremendous comfort through daily prayer.  The Kaddish, the major prayer of the Jewish bereaved, is said within a group of at least 10 other men. The psychological benefits of daily prayer help many through this trying time. A sense of community is formed with other mourners, and the bereaved begins to see through watching others that life does go on. These prayers say nothing about death but rather are a powerful reminder of our need to maintain our faith in spite of our pain. These prayers are said for the first 12 months, upon the yearly anniversary of the deceased's death (Yahrzeit) and quarterly during communal holiday prayers (Yizkor) throughout the surviving family member's lifetime. Only as the one year period draws to a close, does the mourner again begin to participate in joyous events and becomes more fully reintegrated into society. The tombstone dedication, or unveiling, often before the close of the first year helps to bring closure in many ways for the mourner as he revisits the cemetery, in a healthier psychological state than when he first began his journey of grief. The mourner has learned that while he has moved forward, the pain of his loss will always be with him.

Over the past 16 years, I have worked with many families who have faced a loss. I have assisted perhaps in the ritual burial of close to 50 people. While often, I did not know or had only been acquainted with the women whom I helped prepare for burial, I have also been blessed with the privilege of helping prepare the mothers of two very close friends and the young beautiful, daughter of another dear friend.   With each and every person, I was deeply touched by the tremendous dignity afforded to someone who was often not known and could not even utter a thank you. I now have a greater understanding of where my father went on those nights and why. Having the privilege to be part of the Chevra Kadisha and attend to the final needs of an individual is a rare honor today. Only the smallest of Jewish communities, most often those without a Jewish funeral director, take it upon themselves to personally bury their own members. Whatever the community, the men and women of the Chevra Kadisha perform a true act of kindness.  While I am thankful to have been given this opportunity to work with them, I am grateful to those who in their death have taught us so much about life. It is on those nights when I return home, and go yet again into each of my children's rooms for a hug that I am reminded one more time of the true preciousness of life.

Dr. Batya L. Ludman is a licensed clinical psychologist and thanatologist in private practice in Ra'anana, Israel. She specializes in trauma, bereavement and loss and has published extensively in both the professional and lay literature. She currently has a monthly column in the Jerusalem Post. Please view her website at or write her.

Ludman, B.L., Jewish Burial: A Study in the Psychology of Healing. (Abstract) The Forum  The Association for Death Education and Counseling 2000, 26 (4): 8