Dig­ni­ty Beyond Death: The Jew­ish Prepa­ra­tion for Burial

Rochel U. Berman; Rab­bi Irv­ing Green­berg, fwd.
  • Review
By – November 7, 2011

Mod­ern man’s encounter with death is a dis­qui­et­ing, painful, and uneasy moment. Spo­ken of in hushed tones and enveloped by tears, death is the ulti­mate and inevitable reminder of the pow­er­less­ness of human­i­ty to con­trol its own des­tiny, despite all of our advances in knowl­edge and tech­nol­o­gy. Yet for a Jew who believes that death is but a pas­sage to the next and ulti­mate world of eter­ni­ty, death is sim­ply anoth­er, albeit painful, moment of pas­sage with­in a cycle of oppor­tu­ni­ty and life. 

There­fore, for a Jew, the road from life to death is filled not with fear and help­less­ness, but with mean­ing, rit­u­al, and oblig­a­tion, and guid­ed by an extra­or­di­nary group of men and women, the chevra kadisha. Lit­er­al­ly, the sacred soci­ety,” these peo­ple gath­er, often at a moment’s notice, to wash, puri­fy, and dress the deceased before bur­ial with the utmost dig­ni­ty, care, and respect.

In Dig­ni­ty Beyond Death, Rochel U. Berman, a mem­ber of a chevra kadisha in her own com­mu­ni­ty, has set out to describe the work of this very spe­cial group of men and woman in a pas­sion­ate and insight­ful man­ner. Using the voic­es of many ordi­nary peo­ple who them­selves engage in this extra­or­di­nary mitz­vah, Berman describes not only the details and pro­ce­dure of this mitz­vah, but most impor­tant­ly the impact this ulti­mate chesed has upon fam­i­lies of the deceased and the mem­bers of the chevra kadisha themselves. 

While many of her sources are sec­ondary in nature, Berman’s voice is authen­tic and her style cre­ates a sur­pris­ing­ly engag­ing and com­pelling book, that, while emo­tion- laden, draws the read­er into this mitz­vah and most impor­tant­ly into this inti­mate cir­cle of men and women. Berman’s intent may have been to mere­ly edu­cate the vast major­i­ty of read­ers who are unfa­mil­iar with this chesed shel emet” [lit., true act of lov­ingkind­ness], but with­in a few pages her sto­ries and reflec­tions serve to make the read­er want to join in this sacred deed. 

Hard as it is to imag­ine, Berman’s descrip­tions of the taharot [lit., purifi­ca­tions] of the elder­ly and the young, the infirm and the vic­tims of acci­dent or ter­ror, offer the read­er a sense of com­fort, as she describes the lov­ing man­ner in which the mem­bers of the chevra kadisha treat the life­less body. As such, this book is an invalu­able resource not only for those who mourn the loss of loved ones but also for those who seek to under­stand how Jew­ish law pro­tects the dig­ni­ty of the indi­vid­ual even beyond life.

Berman should be com­mend­ed for cre­at­ing this impor­tant, and most impor­tant­ly, sacred work that extends her chesed beyond the moment of death and into the hearts of the living. 

Leonard A. Matanky, Ph.D., serves as asso­ciate super­in­ten­dent of the Asso­ci­at­ed Tal­mud Torahs of Chica­go, direc­tor of its Mor­ris and Rose Gold­man Com­put­er Depart­ment for Jew­ish Stud­ies, dean of Ida Crown Jew­ish Acad­e­my, and rab­bi of Con­gre­ga­tion K.I.N.S. of West Rogers Park (Chica­go).

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