Couples, Levels and Niches

Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg

Tuesday of last week was a special day for the several dozen employees of Kehillat Yerushalayim, the main hevra kadisha - burial society - in Jerusalem. From sunrise to sunset they neither ate nor drank: a total fast. At 7 A.M. they gathered - cantors, body washers and body purifiers, gravediggers and administrative staff wearing ties - for a special prayer service at the Western Wall. Here they read a special Torah portion for a day of fasting, said the selihot prayers of atonement as is customary on a fast day, and then recited the names of all the people they had buried during the past year. Each of the workers received a list of several dozen names, and they read them out, name after name - nearly 2,000 dead. From each they asked forgiveness, in case they had harmed them during their burial. Then they set out on a tour of the four cemeteries where they work - Sanhedria, Mount of Olives, Har Hamenuhot and Har Tamir - and in each place they continued to recite verses of the selihot and kaddish, the mourner's prayer.

All the employees of other burial societies in Jerusalem and throughout the country did the same, as in most of the Jewish communities around the world. Following a tradition that has been observed for hundreds of years, the Jewish date of last Tuesday, the seventh of Adar, is considered a day of reckoning of conscience for hevra kadisha workers. The reason: In Jewish tradition, this date is considered to be the one on which Moses was born and died, and traditionally, Moses is considered the founder of the hevra kadisha: It was he who dealt with bringing Joseph's bones from Egypt to the Land of Israel at the time of the Exodus and it was he who dealt with the arrangements for burying his brother Aaron in the desert.

At the end of the day, the workers anticipated the climax: A festive meal to end the fast, at which discourses on the Torah are also delivered for the moral and spiritual reinforcement of those who engage in this difficult trade. (In the Jewish tradition, the work of the hevra kadisha, and dealing with burial in general, is known as gemilut hessed shel emet, an act of true loving-kindness, because this is the only act of kindness for which no recompense from the recipient can be expected).

Usually, relates Hananya Shahor, the executive director of Kehillat Yerushalayim, the guests of honor at the dinner are the chief rabbis of Jerusalem, but the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Kolitz, is not in good health and the Sephardi chief rabbi, Shalom Mashash, was unable to attend. Thus the audience heard a sermon by Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzthal, the son of former State Comptroller Dr. Yaakov Nebenzthal, who serves in the Old City rabbinate and is considered an important rabbinic authority for the hevra kadisha. In his remarks, Nebenzthal stressed the need to reinforce the scrupulous observance of the special burial customs of Jerusalem.

Indeed, in Jerusalem there are several unique customs that have given it a bad name among mourners: the insistence upon burying the deceased the same day he dies, without waiting for family members to arrive from abroad; the instruction that descendants of a male deceased will not participate in the funeral procession (this is based on a kabbalistic tradition whereby the sperm cells that the deceased "spilled in vain" during his lifetime - that is, did not become children - will accuse his living children) and more.

Shahor said afterward that he thought Nebenzthal was referring to another tradition: "The one that prohibits women from eulogizing the deceased, even though I know that here in our funerals women have been eulogizing for many years." As a rule, he stresses, "At least in our burial society we don't force the Jerusalem customs on the mourners, but only the rules of halakha [Jewish religious law] concerning the deceased, such as dressing them in shrouds."

The Kehillat Yerushalayim burial society, relates Shahor, is one of the younger burial societies in the city. It was founded in 1939 and is unique in that it was founded by the heads of the non-Orthodox, secular community in the city, people like then future president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Judge Gad Frumkin. This is what determined its character as a provider of funerary services to all sectors and ethnic groups in the city, and thus it buries 55 percent of all the city's Jewish dead. The rest are buried by 10 other burial societies, each of which is specific to a particular sector or ethnic group: Hevra Kadisha Leaidat Haparushim provides funerary services to the descendents of the Ashkenazi old Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community), that is - the veteran ultra-Orthodox Jewish public, the Hevra Kadisha Leaida Habavlit serves people of Iraqi origin, and so on.

Double pay for night work

A large number of the hevra kadisha workers, about 15 in number, are involved in the preparation and burial of each deceased individual. With the certification of a person's death, at home or in a hospital, the hevra kadisha people transfer the body to the funeral building. Four people - men for a man and women for a woman - tend to the purification: washing and cleaning the body. A person whose death was caused by a physical injury (a traffic accident, a terror attack or the like) does not undergo purification, because washing could cause the hemorrhaging of large amounts of blood, and "blood is the soul," in Jewish tradition - that is, blood is where the soul is located. For the same reason, the people from Zaka (the acronym for Zihui Korbanot Ason - Identification of Disaster Victims) are scrupulous about removing every trace of blood from the site of a terror attack.

After the purification, the corpse is garbed in shrouds - eight different kinds of white clothing (the number was determined parallel to the garments of the high priest in the Temple, a kind of implicit statement that a person who dies and rises to face the heavenly tribunal is as important as the high priest). It is related in the Talmud that in ancient times it was customary to dress the dead in colorful silken garments, but at certain stage these garments became so costly that people neglected the burial of their loved ones. Therefore the president of the Sanhedrin, Rabban Gamliel, ordered burial in simple white garments, and since then this custom has spread.

After the body is dressed and wrapped in a prayer shawl (which is removed before burial), the deceased is taken to the cemetery chapel. There, the hevra kadisha people make the ritual tear in the clothing of immediate relatives - to signify the rending of garments, as a symbol of mourning - and the funeral procession begins. Hevra kadisha people relate that as the work of the cantor is separate from the care of the body itself, it is considered the most prestigious, and many of the workers see this as the height of professional advancement.

Wages are paid according to the number of bodies. The purifiers, for example, are paid NIS 80 per corpse, and at night the pay is doubled (in Jerusalem, as noted, it is customary not to keep the body overnight, and therefore many funerals are held at night), so the workers have an interest in many dead. Shahor says that the average in his burial society is about five or six funerals a day (which means about 10 Jewish funerals a day in all of Jerusalem), but he also remembers a day when there were nine funerals: "Only rarely is there a day without a single funeral, although a few months ago there was a weekend like that." Paradoxically, he notes, "We've noticed that when there are doctors' strikes there is a significant drop in the number of deceased." He has no explanation for this, but every reader is of course invited to draw his own conclusions.

Who are the people who work for the burial societies? Shahor says that in many cases they are people whose families have traditionally done this work. He himself, for example, is a member of the third generation in his family to deal with burial: His grandfather worked in the burial society of the German- speaking Jews in Tel Aviv; his father was for many years the head of the burial section of the military rabbinate and then worked in the offices of the hevra kadisha that his son administers today. However, says Shahor - and there seems to be a note of sorrow in his comment - "My sons and grandsons will apparently not work here."

Someone whose sons and grandsons do work in this field is Abed, the elderly Arab watchman at the Mount of Olives cemetery. A week ago, he was interviewed on Amikam Rotman's radio program, after he corrected MK Prof. Aryeh Eldad (National Union), who came to visit the grave of his father, right-wing ideologist Yisrael Eldad. "You're a day late," Abed informed the surprised Eldad. "Your father's yahrzeit [Yiddish for anniversary of death] was yesterday."

Abed's own father worked for the hevra kadisha, also as a watchman. His son and his grandson also work there, not as watchmen, but gravediggers. He himself relates that he remembers funerals from back in the 1940s. Thus, for example, the funeral he remembers most clearly, because of the difficult circumstances, is that of Pinchas Rotenberg, the founder of the Israel Electric Corporation and a leader of the Yishuv, who passed away in 1942 in the middle of a fierce snowstorm. The honorable mourners - all of them the nobility of the Yishuv at the time - had to flounder around in heavy snow.

Yehezkel Kop, a Gur Hasid, has been purifying bodies since he was 22. He says that he entered this line of work purely out of curiosity: "I was interested in understanding this process: to understand what people die from and what is done with them after death." Now, he admits, the curiosity is gone "and what's left is the salary and the expectation of a pension." He relates that over the years he has become an expert in medical matters: "I researched the causes of death of every deceased, and thus I've come to conclusions of my own about what requires caution."

Zvi (who insists on not revealing his surname), a funeral chapel cantor, says that what brought him into this occupation was a profound sense of mission: "Up until a year and a half ago I worked in marketing and advertising, and actually I was pretty good at it. Only at some stage I felt that I wanted to do something for the general good, something more spiritual, and therefore I came to work here."

Miriam Hamburger has also been washing corpses for 22 years. She came into the occupation in the footsteps of her husband, who also works at a hevra kadisha. For eight years she worked for the Prushim and then moved to Kehillat Yerushalayim: "My husband worked at a hevra kadisha before me, and one time I went to their seventh of Adar party with him, and then they offered me a job with them too. I had previously worked as a practical nurse. I asked my doctor, and he told me that it would be better for me to change jobs because it's harder to do practical nursing than it is to do this work."

Like every place that deals with death, there is also internal humor at the hevra kadisha. For example they call the administrative offices pinat hahai (literally, "the living corner," the Hebrew term for an animal menagerie or petting zoo). The oral lore that is transmitted from worker to worker - some of the stories have no doubt been handed down through several generations - focuses on the strange, undignified behavior of mourners. Coming from a society in which every event and every ritual is scrupulously planned down to the last detail, especially when it comes to mourning rituals, they have instinctive scorn for people who cannot observe the most basic rules of politeness and natural respect. Thus, for example, they tell of bizarre eulogies, "like Ezer Weizman's eulogy for Yitzhak Rabin:" someone who mourned the fact that the deceased passed away "at the very moment I went out to buy some sesame;" someone who eulogized the marvelous alcoholic beverages at the home of the deceased; a son who lamented his father: "Who will make me such wonderful schnitzel, the way you made it," and so on.

They are scrupulous about not sharing experiences from work with their families, and this includes the women among them. Hamburger says, "At home I don't talk about anything, as if I didn't even work in this place." It all stays within the family circle of the funeral home, and if people suffer psychological distress because of their work, their colleagues, who themselves know the nature of the work, are the best possible psychologists. Shahor says: "People who did share [their experiences] with their families finally had to leave their jobs, because their wives didn't agree that they continue."

They are well aware of the negative image they have and the immediate reasons for it: a corruption scandal at the Tel Aviv hevra kadisha, along with many complaints about gravediggers who charge privately for their services (which is illegal, as basic burial arrangements are paid for by the National Insurance Institute). Shahor stresses: "Here, there has never been a single case of anyone taking illegal payments." But in the same breath he adds: "The coverage of burial costs by the National Insurance Institute has damaged us considerably with respect to our image: The insurance covers only the immediate expenses, but there is the impression that all the burial services are paid for by the state, and when you come to charge for some other service, you are perceived as a thief." For example, it is legal to charge an extra fee to a person who has been widowed and who wants to reserve a burial plot next to his or her spouse (at Kehillat Yerushalayim, the charge is NIS 9,400). "But people are certain that they are entitled to this from the National Insurance," says Shahor. "In fact, this income from selling graves serves us for all our operating expenses, for example developing the chapels" (see box).

However, it is clear that the distaste aroused by a burial society has to do not only with its actual work, but with its identification with death. Shahor says they are aware of this and take special care to relate sensitively to each family of mourners.

Is this possible? Don't the emotions get blunted naturally when a person deals with death every day? Zvi, the cantor, says they do not, and as far as he is concerned, "At every funeral I try to feel anew what the family is feeling, because for the family every deceased person is an entire world, and my role as a cantor is to try to suffer their pain."

Some admit that their emotions do get blunted, and this is just as well; otherwise, they would not be able to bear up. Hamburger, for example, says: "When I get home I immediately forget everything I've been through at work. I cut myself off entirely."

Shahor says that hevra kadisha workers really do get less emotional and teary than other people; but they too sometimes have breaking points, especially when it comes to the deaths of children or young people. He tells of one cantor from his hevra kadisha who presided at the funeral of a young man who left behind a child of five. In prior consultation with the family, it was decided that because of his age, the boy would not say kaddish; the cantor would do it for him. But at the funeral itself, suddenly the little boy asked to say kaddish. "The cantor asked whether he knew the words, and the boy said he would repeat it after the cantor, and thus both of them said kaddish, the cantor, and the boy after him. The cantor, who had already seen a great many funerals, nevertheless could not stop crying."

Because of the shortage of gravesites in Jerusalem (and throughout the country), the Kehillat Yerushalayim burial society has developed several innovative methods of burial. Thus, for example, the burial of couples in a joint grave, one on top of the other. Two tombstones are placed on the grave, commemorating each member of the couple. Whoever dies first is buried more deeply, and when the spouse dies, the grave is opened and he or she is buried above the first.

Shahor: "Today we are in a situation where ordinary burial side by side [known as "field burial" - Y.S.] is nearly impossible to offer to couples. Therefore we have developed this method of couple burial. For the most part, those who are interested in couple burial have no problem with this method."

Another method is burial in levels. On the same piece of land, several levels for burial are built. However, so as not to give families the feeling that these graves are different from ordinary graves, every such level is open to the air and has a separate entrance from the road, so that the mourners feel exactly like those who come to an ordinary burial plot. To date, the hevra kadisha people have allowed themselves to use this system for five levels at most, for fear of overburdening the land, and each level is reinforced with massive concrete pillars.

The most unusual kind of burial is the niche system - replicating a system that was in use during Temple times, in which the dead are buried not in the earth but within a wall, in which there are several rows of burial niches. However, earth is also put into the wall, in accordance with the traditional religious legal requirement that burial be in earth.

Shahor stresses that all these methods have received religious approval from a committee of rabbis appointed by the Chief Rabbinate, although thus far they have not been adopted by other burial societies - "apparently out of conservatism and not for reasons of religious law." This conservatism also prevails among the public, and it has been necessary to contend with it in order to persuade mourners to bury their loved ones using the new system. The main problem, predictably, is with the niche system, the very name of which can be a deterrent. "We don't compel anyone, but we explain why there is no problem, and most people are persuaded." (Y.S.)