Most Sincerely Dead - Honor and Comfort for the Deceased


by Lila Cohen



[originally published spring 2020]


 

At my grandfather's funeral this April, I felt very alienated from the process of mourning. There were so many absurd events that went down before the service started. We had to frantically borrow a neighbor’s car to make it to the funeral on time, my mother argued on the phone with the Rabbi on the drive over about the order of eulogies, and a member of my grandma’s synagogue gave me an extremely detailed explanation about her Costco glasses purchase. In the midst of all this commotion, I did not have space to reflect on the significance of our mourning ritual and what it meant to me.


Since then, I have been reading up on Jewish death rituals. Chevra kadisha groups traditionally performed purification and burial rituals and also managed the details of the cemetery. They are part of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions that date back centuries. There is a record of a Jewish confraternity that formed in Prague in 1564 to carry out these customs. In the Taharah, or ritual purification process, the body is methodically and gently washed with water, nailpolish and jewelry are removed as the washers sing to the person who has passed. Different groups have passed down different customs for how to purify the body; for example some Sephardic traditions dictates to wash the head seven times. Another major component is that the body must never be left alone, or shmirah. Finally, the body is dressed in tachrichim, which are a simple white cotton ceremonial robe.


During one Shabbat dinner here at Oberlin, I was chatting about Jewish burial rituals, and coincidentally a peer told me his dad had started a Chevra Kadisha group in his New Jersey Synagogue, B’nai Keshet. Last week, I had the chance to chat with Joel Ackelsberg about his experiences caring for the dead.


[This interview has been edited for length and clarity].


Cohen:

What inspired you to start the Chevra Kadisha, and when did you start it?


Ackelsberg:

Roughly 10 years ago, somebody from our shul came over to ask about ways in which I might want to contribute to synagogue life. I had not only been through burials my whole life, but I also work as a physician. I have seen people in the last throes of life and watched carefully as they die and actually have to be the one signing of death certificate to verify that they're not really dead, they're quite sincerely dead. That was a wizard of Oz reference.


Cohen:

I didn't actually catch it!


Ackelsberg:

I noticed that there did seem to be a physical change that comes over a person when they die. It's hard to describe. When I observed death professionally, I recalled significant spiritual experiences that I had earlier in life. In one case, a friend of mine was in a coma. I was there in the room with him, saying goodbye and decided with great intention to try to communicate with him non-verbally, to connect with him mentally. I was saying to him, Peter, we love you. Hold on to that love, let that love be a guide in whatever you face. Tears started to flow down his cheeks. Things like that impressed upon me that there's a real possibility that there’s more to life than what we see, hear, and feel typically. As I got further into medical science, that sensibility never left.


Cohen:

It’s really interesting that you can be someone deeply involved with science and fact but also believe that there is more than what meets the eye to bodies and life.


Ackelsberg:

I don't think there is a divide between science and call it what you want. It's all frankly an effort, science and other kinds of explorations or efforts to explain the world as we know it. There's just the limit to what science can tell us.


Cohen:

Can you tell me about shmira [ritual guarding of the body]?


Ackelsberg:

There is a group that's called Kavod v’Nichum, which basically means honor and comfort, which are the primary intentions that one has when dealing with the person who has died and also the family. Honoring the dead is the primary focus all the way up through the tahara through the shmira. The reason why that's done, and it comes from the root shomer, to guard over, to protect. Shamira is also guard duty. You're looking over the body to protect it from animals, from insects, other people, from anything that might show up between from the time of death to the time of burial. But there's another aspect, which is the common belief the soul is confused at that moment after death and has a difficult time figuring out exactly what's going on. Having people present reciting psalms is comforting. Honoring the dead is also making sure that the person who's dying is properly attended to with great care and love.


Cohen:

Where do you guys get the kittels from?


Ackelsberg:

Some people use their own kittels. The kittel is more of the jacket. The kittle that's worn on Yom Kippor or worn at someone's wedding is the one they would use. However, the clothing is called tachrichim, which comes in a kit that includes all the clothing, which are a hat, a shirt, pants that have no holes for the feet, and a belt. Then the kittel goes over the tachrichim. There's lots of tying knots. The kit is usually provided by the funeral home.


Cohen:

Do you have to get officially certified to handle the dead bodies?


Ackelsberg:

There's no certification, although different groups would have different criteria for allowing people come in. Traditionally it was an activity that was done by those who had a lot of stature and privilege in the community, people who were pious or however you wanna describe it. But in the movement today, which is really a movement of communities to regain this community function that, that has been taken over, most of these groups simply train people. One person trains other who trains another, and you do it a number of times until you increase your proficiency. Every group does it a little differently. Kavod v’Nichum is an umbrella organization for Kadisha groups across the country and they have annual conferences. The first time I went it totally blew me away.


Cohen:

Did they have trainings there or were there people talking about their experiences?


Ackelsberg:

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. It's a three day conference usually. This coming year it's going to be in Pittsburgh in June.


Cohen:

What drives people to seek out your Tahara services? Is it more of a financial need for people who can't afford burial services or is it generally more for religious reasons?


Ackelsberg:

Most people don't prepare for the moments when they need to do this. When someone dies, they're left wondering, Holy crap, what do I do now? Sometimes they call the rabbi or the chevra kadisha. For the most part, people are interested in the topic because they don't realize that this was a function that we as a community have traditionally provided and that the whole idea of funeral homes became more common in the late 20th century. Before the professionalization of this industry, every community had their own separate kadisha. At this point, we've socialized the concept a lot through our congregation, so people are aware of the services we provide. So it's pretty common for them to reach out to us.


Cohen:

Our society distances us from thinking about death and as much as possible, so people just don't think that much about death and the inevitability of it.


Ackelsberg:

That's true. It’s especially easy not to think about it when you're young unless you have a close relative that dies. Children learn early on, just from watching how the adults deal with death that death isn't something that shouldn't be talked about and should be avoided. Parents may yank their kids out of yizkor service, or not allow them to go to a cemetery. It wasn't too long ago that people didn't openly talk about dying or use the C word.


Cohen:

In the last decade, have you seen an increasing yearning to bring back these communal life structures? Or do you think that people are still going in the other direction?


Ackelsberg:

It's hard to know. What I participated in has certainly been a very localized expression of yearning. You haven't myself cause I've definitely experienced how people have been very interested in having this available or for their loved ones. There are also more and more people who are choosing cremation, but that's a whole other three hour conversation.


Cohen:

I've never seen a dead body, even though I've had deaths in my family.


Ackelsberg:

The taharah is a very beautiful ceremony. It's usually a person you don't know, and you very carefully and tenderly prepare and wash the body.