Gravedigger Yossi Yadai, 51 years old, stands in a grave with a shovel in hand. He features in a photograph taken by press photographer Assaf Friedman, whose works are included in the recently opened “Local Testimony,” an annual exhibition of local photojournalism displayed at Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum. Friedman’s work won first prize in the accompanying competition in the category of “Faith and Religion.”
To the eye unaccustomed to death, the image may seem morbid, but for Yadai, who has been working at this job since his army days, this is simply work. “There’s nothing to it – someone has to do this,” he told Friedman, who both photographed and interviewed members of a hevra kadisha, a Jewish burial society.
The picture of Yadai is one of a series of dramatic black-and-white photos that make up a project the 35-year-old Friedman calls “On Life and Death.” In it, the photographer explains, he “documented the cycle of life and death through photos of people whose work is related to this topic.”
Friedman’s hevra kadisha photographs would be incomplete if not accompanied by the short interviews he did with its members, who describe how they’ve buried neighbors and acquaintances, and how they deal with the families of the deceased, as well as with their own families. They also describe their encounters with the death of young people, children and infants.
Friedman came to this topic by chance, this past January. “I was sent to photograph a news item at the Neve Hadar cemetery in Hod Hasharon. There I met Baruch Ezra, who owns a headstone business outside the cemetery. I started documenting his work, as well as his relations with Mohammed Bashir, who’s been working with him for 30 years. On one of my visits to the cemetery, I met Yadai, who is familiar known to many locals in Hod Hasharon as ‘the guy from the funerals.’”
After Friedman obtained permission from the city’s religious council, Yadai’s employer, he returned to photograph him and interview him at greater length.
How do you handle dealing with death from an emotional perspective?
Friedman: “I’m a realist, and it’s clear that death awaits each one of us around the corner. One of the things that helped me was the interviews I did. From them, I drew the forces needed to contend with difficult situations. I learned from them the meaning of true grace, as I found out just how complex their work really is.”
Can you give me an example?
“Many times, the work doesn’t end in the room where the bodies undergo tahara [ritual purification] before burial, but continues with the family. You need to know how to talk to a grieving family and how to handle the deceased with dignity, treating him or her with utmost respect, on their way to eternal rest.
“Taking photos was the most enjoyable part, since you never quite know what you’ll get in the end. There’s an expectation of something unknown, which is what makes documentary photography so special.”
'We all reach the same place'
One horrifying image is of 56-year-old Danny Ben-Baruch lying inside a grave, his eyes closed and his hands folded over his stomach, surrounded by headstones lying on the ground around him. Ben-Baruch has been in the funeral business for 35 years, involved in grave digging and tahara, and as a cantor.
In addition to staged portraits like this, Friedman also took snapshots of the routine life of those involved in death and burial. This included 60-year-old Shmuel Gutman, a gravedigger and driver who also prepares bodies for burial. On a table behind him lies a body covered in a prayer shawl. Gutman looks into the camera with an almost apathetic face.
Mazal Bruchel is also photographed from a similar viewpoint, inside the purification room. Both of them have been in the business for over 20 years. “In this line of work, I realize how much we much we are nothing in this world. Absolutely nothing,” Bruchel told Friedman. Other photos show the process of interment, sometimes from familiar angles and other times from less familiar ones, starting with the removal of the body from refrigeration up to the burial itself.
Shmuel Taub is a 37-year-old driver for the Hod Hasharon hevra kadisha. He is photographed as he transports a body, which is covered with a velvet cloth embroidered with a large Star of David. He tells Friedman that the main thing he’s learned from this job is to value life. “We think about and get annoyed by a lot of things. In the end we realize that nothing is worth it, we all end up in the same place.”
Taub says that hardest part of his job is coming to the homes of his clients. “When we come to take the body, we encounter families only moments after the death of their loved ones. These are the most difficult moments. They ask questions. We try to give the most detailed and sensitive explanations so they understand the funeral process in its entirety.”
Six feet under
It’s not easy to photograph people who work around the dead, says Friedman. “Much of the energy went into explaining things before I could actually begin taking pictures. I have to introduce myself and explain why the hell I want to take pictures and interview them.
“One interview I remember well was with [Shmuel] Gutman. He noted something he hears often during eulogies: ‘Tell your dear ones that you love them.’ That same day, over Shabbat dinner, right after the Kiddush over the wine, I told everyone I loved them.”
Was there a moment that broke you?
“Once I came to photograph the hevra kadisha’s refrigerators at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. I was alone. The door opened and a driver brought in a body wrapped in a black bag, which he placed in one of the compartments. I looked up at the ceiling and couldn’t believe I was there. After I finished taking pictures, I came out and asked him where the body was from. He said it was an elderly woman he had brought from a hospice. The scene was real and powerful, but mainly sad. The human aspect was my focus. I chose to concentrate on people doing this non-routine work and the ways in which they deal with it.”