We’re in the Advent season now, and many of us are preparing our homes with Christmas foods, decorations and lights. Even the funeral home has a poinsettia in the lobby and wreaths on the doors.
The Christmas season is all about preparing–trees are put up, cookies are baked, stockings are hung by the chimney with care. It can be overwhelming sometimes with all the gifts to be wrapped and parties to attend. Christmas preparations, however, do not come as a surprise to us because the holiday comes around every year. Some of us may even enter December with a faint sense of dread, but traditions are carried on, carols are sung and we get together with family and friends to celebrate the season. It’s interesting to me that one of the most quoted passages of Scripture at funeral services is also about preparing. You don’t usually think of death as something you can be prepared for, and truthfully, none of us know how long we will be on this earth. Death can come suddenly, even tragically, or it can come slowly, over the years. It is never, however, something for which we can be completely prepared. Some amount of planning may help ease the burden of the many details that need to be attended to when death occurs, but worrying about it will not put off the inevitable nor lessen the grief for those left behind. If there are few conversations and preparations made before a death, decisions for family members can be more overwhelming in their state of grief. Even the most well-prepared plans, however, will not fully lift the feeling of loss.
In the gospel of John, chapter 14, Jesus speaks to the disciples to comfort them in preparation for his death and he says,
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” John 14:1-7 NIV
Advent is all about preparing. It is equally, however, about waiting and abiding in the promise of our Savior. The reminder in John 14 is that a place is being prepared for us and it is one of thoughtful design and eternal hope. It may not be filled with gumdrops and candy canes, but it has many rooms, and the invitation is open at all times. This season may find you reflecting on the loss of a loved one or making preparations for when your time comes. Sickness and earthly pain may leave you feeling less than jolly. Our great privilege in this season, however, is to rejoice in the knowledge of the Emmanuel, God incarnate–with us on earth here to dwell– who is preparing a place just for us. How are you preparing your heart to tune into the truth of the real meaning of Christmas this year?
Tucked between the familiar refrain of the popular Christmas carol “We Three Kings” lies a lesser known verse alluding to the future death of the newborn baby Jesus.
We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star…
Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb…
O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light…
Fast forward with me if you will from the scene of the Magi to the scene at the cross from the Gospel of John:
…Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:38-40)
Myrrh and aloes, mentioned together in John’s account of Jesus’ burial (above), are plant materials known for their aromas and medicinal benefits. Myrrh, which is a resin, in particular has fixative and antiseptic properties, and thus, is useful when applied to a decaying body. The amount recorded, 75 lbs, is excessive for traditional use, and may point to the great love Joseph and Nicodemus felt for Jesus, like that of Mary as she poured a bottle of expensive perfume on the Messiah’s feet before his arrest. More likely, however, is that since Jesus died the day before the Sabbath (the Jewish holy day when no work is to be done), there was no time to ritually wash and dress his body for burial. The tomb was nearby, so his body was placed there with plenty of myrrh, aloes and spices to last until the first day of the week when the women came to wash and anoint him. Much to their surprise, however, the tomb was empty for he had risen.
While I don’t know of any modern preparations involving myrrh or spices, even today Orthodox Judaism prescribes that a body be buried as quickly as possible. Modern vascular embalming techniques and cremation are typically forbidden in Jewish culture, and in many cases the deceased is buried within 24 hours of death. This guideline is set not only for practical and sanitary considerations, but also as a measure of respect for the deceased. Unnecessary incisions into the body are not permitted, and if autopsy or embalming is required for some reason, all blood or fluids removed from the body at any point must be kept with the body for burial (this also includes bandages, clothing, bedding and other items that may have come in contact with blood or fluids).
In Orthodox Jewish communities today, the sacred act of washing and preparing a body for burial is done by a special group of volunteers known as the Chevra Kadisha. There is a ritual washing, known as the Tahara, in which the body is cleansed from head to toe, right to left, front to back and dressed in white burial clothes. Men and women prepare bodies of members of their own sex. Noise is kept to a minimum and speech is permitted only for reciting prayers or psalms or for simple instructions or short stories. Many Jews believe that the spirit of a body does not fully leave it until a few hours after death, so during the Tahara, members of the Chevra Kadisha are careful to never cross over the top of the body as to not disturb the soul. Tahara is not performed on the Sabbath, neither is burial, and refrigeration of the body is permitted in these cases. The Chevra Kadisha also traditionally provides one member, or Shomer, to stand as guard for the body until burial. Those who participate in such rituals refer to Tahara as a spiritual practice, orienting them with the deeper elements of the Jewish faith, and they regard the duty as a privilege.
As mentioned in a previous post, simplicity and dignity are hallmarks of the Jewish faith. It remains tradition that bodies are dressed in modest white garments and buried in plain wooden boxes without nails, each to draw attention away from displays of wealth and to emphasize equality. Small amounts of dirt from the Holy Land are sprinkled over different parts of the body and caskets remain closed once the body is placed inside. As much as it is possible in modern cemeteries, caskets are buried in a way which allows maximum amount of contact with earth; sometimes meaning that a vault is put upside down over a casket.
Whatever your personal response to this religious group, it is difficult to ignore the high level of responsibility the Jewish community takes on for the care and burial of the dead and for the care of the mourning family. You’ll be hard pressed to find such dedication anywhere else, but it is surprisingly difficult to find consistent or thorough resources which evaluate and shed light on the fullness of significance involved in such sacred tasks. The lack of modern literary and oral guides about death and dying within Jewish culture, especially when compared with present-day knowledge of the rich traditions of Biblical times, is almost absurd. Presumably, this void is linked to the darkness and bewilderment of the shadow created by the Holocaust, a time when death was so heart-breakingly prevalent for Jews. Also, many of these sacred rituals are performed only within the context of Orthodox Judaism, not in all Jewish circles, so the reach is limited. Wherever explanation seems to be lacking for individual customs, however, it seems the community makes up for it in a deep respect for life and for death. As the mystery and uncertainty surrounding some of the lesser understood rituals continues to be disentangled, the foundations of the faith are increasingly strengthened and views of the afterlife are increasingly challenged. It is encouraging that awareness and curiosity about death customs continues to surface within the Jewish community; through it all, a clear focus is kept on maintaining honor in all circumstances and the deep veins of tradition continue to bring structure and purpose to the difficult process of grief.
For more information about Tahara, Chevra Kadisha, and other Jewish terms, visit the following web resources:
This year, 2013, marks a once in a lifetime convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. The “Thanksgivukkah” holiday has sparked some fascinating fusions such as pumpkin challah bread, kosher cornbread, and my personal favorite, the menurkey: part turkey, part menorah. The pictures below speak thousands of words.
I plan on celebrating Thanksgiving in a relatively traditional manner, and given that I am not Jewish and don’t even really know how to spell Hanukkah, I only recently discovered the hybridization of these holidays. I wish I’d had more time to fully grasp the wacky side of it all…
Silliness aside, the traditions associated with both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah serve to carry forward stories, values, and recipes across generations. Social and religious elements come together to create a bountiful, vibrant heritage for many who take part in meaningful holiday customs from year to year.
In the same vein, different cultures and religious traditions dictate customs for mourning, funerals and care of the dead which serve to bring honor and structure to the grieving process.
Jewish culture in particular prescribes a distinct set of rituals surrounding death, indicative of the many rules and procedures pertaining to the faith. Many aspects of Jewish customs are often misunderstood, but I believe there is much value in taking a closer look at the deep-rooted sense of honor pervasive among individual mourning practices.
One of the most well-known Jewish mourning customs is Shiva— you may recognize the phrase, “sitting Shiva.” This 7 day period of mourning begins after the burial of a body and, in the most Orthodox circles, includes tearing of garments, covering mirrors, and not shaving or bathing for the week. By sitting low to the ground and staying mostly in the home, mourners convey a sense of loss dwelling heavily on their hearts. The neglect of physical comforts also brings more emphasis to emotional and spiritual conditions.
Shiva begins after burial, and it is symbolic for switching focus from care of the deceased to care for the mourners. After the initial mourning week of Shiva is over, a Shloshim period of 30 days extends some elements of Shiva, and mourners do not attend social gatherings, shave, or cut their hair. (No-shave-November, anybody??) This time period serves as a transition back to daily life, but leaves room for feelings of loss to exist in a safe environment and helps make known that grief is a process.
The period of 30 days coincides with the lunar calendar, and it is tied closely with the idea of coming full circle, just as the moon waxes and wanes. Mourners often find comfort in watching light reappear as the moon cycles from new to full. Likewise, comfort is found in having the structure of tradition at the one year anniversary of the death. At this time of natural reflection, known as the “Yahrtzeit,” candles are lit and prayers are recited, and a celebration of life is held.
In the Jewish faith, the respect shown for the dead is very important, as is the simplicity and sacredness of rituals. Jewish funeral traditions shift the center of focus away from death and towards the cycle of life, and there is powerful imagery to help shape and give depth to many of the practices besides the ones listed here.
If I’ve whetted your appetite for Jewish customs surrounding death and mourning, join me next time for discussion about ritual care of the deceased and Jewish funeral traditions. If I’ve whetted your appetite for pumpkin challah or other Thanksgivukkah treats, I’m sorry: I’m fresh out.