A Radical Departure (Ctd.)

Be precise and don't lie"Heaven forbid," answer Amir the technician when asked if he would also like to be burned in the crematorium when the time comes. As we're talking, the body that was just brought in is being burned to ashes. "I'm a religious Jew and I believe in the Jewish religious ritual," he says.

How does Nativ deal with the implications of his new profession? "I don't see myself as a person who deals with death," he says. "If I wore a uniform or developed weapons or was an arms trader, I'd feel that I was dealing with death. I deal with life. All I'm doing is providing a service, to families mostly, reaching out to them in their most difficult time."

Yes, but you live off the dead.

"I don't earn a livelihood from the dead. I earn a livelihood from living people. I don't chase after ambulances or after people in the hospital. Most of our clients are people who come to us because they don't want their families to have to bother with all the arrangements when the time comes, people to whom it's important that their funeral ceremony match the values they lived by. And there are also people who come to us when a family member has died and they want to hold a burial ceremony the way they think he would have wanted it."

Among the prospective clients, who are virtually all secular, there are many primarily new immigrants, Jews and Christians who are interested in a funeral with an open coffin. The company also provides makeup services. "Makeup is necessary in certain cases," Nativ explains. "First of all, even when it's going to be closed coffin funeral, there's the need to identify the deceased, and it's a lot more pleasant to do that when the person's face is less scary looking. Think about how hard it would be for a family to identify someone who died as a result of an accident or a long agonizing illness. We prepare the relative for the moment when he or she has to look at the deceased. And when you have an open coffin, of course it's important to give the deceased the most aesthetic appearance possible."

The prospectus shows workers wearing white robes, but right now two men in jeans and T-shirts are working on the cremation of a 67-year-old Jew whose funeral is due to take place in the evening. Nothing in the little room an office that was converted into a clinic, on the street level of an office building that has a large sign belonging to a cleaning services company over the door, is reminiscent of television or movie scenes of funeral homes. The air-conditioner in the little room isn't working, and the body is lying on a bed in a suit and shoes ("The family chooses which clothes to dress the deceased in," says Nativ).

The two men, a mustachioed one who is surprisingly cheerful and answers to the name Shlomo, and the second, a quiet man who wears a kippah and is called Dudu, are working on the makeup. "This isn't a serious job. The makeup on this one is minimal," says Shlomo. "This is an older gentleman and there's no special challenge. The only thing is to fix the skin color a little." He uses Careline makeup powder, a little blush, several shades of shadow and a special type of glue that he applies to the lips and eyelashes. "The real challenge is when you have to insert cotton to straighten the face or the nostrils and when you have to hide wounds and scars. Let's say that an only child was killed you want the parents to see her and remember her in the most beautiful way possible."

They are ambulance drivers by profession, but Shlomo began working as a makeup artist on the dead even before Alei Shalekhet existed. "As an ambulance driver, I saw that when Christians in Israel wanted to have a funeral with an open coffin, there was no one to offer them that service. So seven years ago, I traveled to Romania, where I was born, where this occupation of doing makeup for the dead is very much accepted, and I took an intensive six-month course." Sometimes, when the dead are Christian, the Hevra Kadisha refers people to him "and then I sit with the people and explain to them exactly what I'm going to do. And they're ready to pay for it all on two conditions that you do precise work and that you don't lie."

Do you also do the sort of treatments that were shown on "Six Feet Under," where they remove all the fluids from the body and inject all kinds of substances?

"No, that's embalming. We don't do embalming. That is only done at Abu Kabir when a body needs to be flown to another country, because it's forbidden to put a dead body on a plane without embalming."

Which is easier, working with the living or working with the dead?

"It depends. If you sleep well at night after you've dealt with the dead, then it's very good work. I've learned to inure myself. I don't feel the smells anymore, for example, and I don't have nightmares. I sleep very well. But it's hardest when you have to work on children. That's really hard. I had to do a job on a little boy who died and it was very hard. And I had another one, a 27-year-old Russian man who waited three weeks in the refrigerator at Abu Kabir until his mother arrived from Russia to identify him. You can imagine what that was like."

Like the other 40 employees (most of them freelance) of Alei Shalekhet, Shlomo and Dudu perform all the various duties. They transport the bodies in ambulances, dress them and apply makeup to them. Most of the time, they are also responsible for transporting the body to the cemetery and are also the ones who lower the coffin into the grave. "I'm at funerals all the time," says Shlomo. "My job is to make sure that everything goes smoothly until the grave is covered."

Who needs a tombstone?As with a civil marriage ceremony, secular funeral service also had to be invented anew. Nativ turned to the Secular Ritual Institute (Hamakhon Hatekasim Hahiloni) and together with Doron Kenar began planning different possibilities for ceremonies. "There was a need for different ceremonies, for burial and for the spreading of ashes. At first, we worked only on the funeral services and then we expanded it to memorial services."

The whole subject of dealing with human ashes is a new thing in Israel. "For instance, there's the matter of the urns," says Nativ. "In other countries, the whole issue of funerary urns is very developed. In Israel, awareness is still low." The ashes that come out of the crematorium and are subsequently processed are first put, using a plastic bag, into a sort of temporary plastic can. If the ashes are meant to be spread afterward, then that is all that is used. If the family wishes to preserve the ashes, bury them in the earth or fly them overseas, they buy an urn, usually one made of marble. It's surprising to see how small an urn is needed to preserve the ashes of what was once a full-grown person. "That's because most of the volume of the human body is air," explains Nativ. "All in all, a person is just two to four kilos of ashes."

About a month ago, Yigal Adiv's father passed away. Yigal and his brother and sister knew that their father was interested in having his body cremated after his death. "He didn't like eulogies and memorials and all that, and he didn't want to be a burden," says Adiv. "He was an independent kind of guy and wanted to do things his way. He talked to us about it after he heard something about it, and we also knew that he wanted his ashes to be scattered at sea "

Was that a strange request for you to hear?

"No. My brother and sister and I were all thinking the same thing without realizing it, and only after he started to talk about cremation was I surprised, because I'd been thinking about it for years. It seems like the quickest and most logical thing to do. What amazed me was that my father thought so, too."

What is your reason? Why do you want to be cremated after you die?

"I'll eventually turn to ashes anyway, so why do I need the whole process in the middle?"

You didn't want to be present at your father's cremation?

"It's not that we didn't want to. It's not a whole ceremony like they do in America,where there are chairs set up in front of the oven. It's a process that takes a long time and afterward they still have to grind up the ashes."

So you didn't have a funeral?"In Judaism, you need a body for a funeral and there was no body. We did a parting ceremony just among ourselves."

Adiv is satisfied with the service he received from Alei Shalekhet. When his father died, he called 144, the information number. "I asked the girl to help me find something related to cremation and after a few tries, we came upon Alei Shalekhet. Half an hour later, the ambulance came and took him. We were very impressed with the person who did it, who was very kind. Then a half hour after that, the girl we'd talked to on the phone came over herself and asked what sort of ceremony we wanted and how we would like to receive the ashes and how we would like to commemorate our father. She did everything with sensitivity and kindness."

The cost was NIS 9,000. "I think it's a lot cheaper than the Hevra Kadisha. My grandfather wanted a grave near my grandmother and it cost him a ton of money, not to mention the tombstones and maintenance. We buried my grandfather two years ago and we felt like it was just a commercial market. As soon as he died, people started coming to us to sell us tombstones, before he was even buried."

How did the people you know react to the fact that there wouldn't be a funeral for your father?

"Right away, during phone calls before the shiva (seven-day mourning period), when people asked when the funeral was, the reactions started to be very tough. All kinds of people tried to convince us that maybe we should have a burial anyway and they told us that what we were doing wasn't Jewish. What's not Jewish about it, exactly?"

But this means that you don't have any tombstone for him anywhere.

"True, but he was our father. Do you think we need a tombstone to remember him? It's impossible to forget him. He left behind so many memories."

Cremation does not always mean not having a grave or a farewell ceremony. For those who prefer cremation, there are several options as to what to do with the ashes. Some families will scatter them alone in a place that was cherished by the deceased; others will prefer to keep the ashes at home. Then there are those who might choose to preserve them in a columbarium a special place in which there is also a room for memorial services (the company is currently has one in the planning stages; construction is scheduled to be completed in 2006 and in the meantime, the ashes are being stored in urns in the Alei Shalekhet offices in Kfar Sava). The majority, however, are interested in giving the funerary urn a full burial, in a cemetery and with a tombstone.

As noted, most of the people who seek out Alei Shalekhet's services are interested in a secular burial and funeral. Nativ: "The people who come to us are usually 60 and older. Most of them are not sick. Of course, we also handle the burials of much younger people, but in those cases, their family comes to us." In at least one case, involving the baby Michal Lalik who was killed at age two months by her father in the beginning of the year, Alei Shalekhet organized the funeral and the burial and the tombstone all at company expense. "Because for three months they didn't know what to do with the body," Nativ explains.

That manDoron Kenar, 50, has been organizing mourning ceremonies for the past year. At the Secular Ritual Institute he also organizes wedding ceremonies. "In the metaphysical sense, there's a movie that I really love 'Harold and Maude' which is a love story between an old woman and a young man who meet at funerals and discover that they both like to go to funerals."

Do you also like to go to funerals?

"No, I don't especially like to, but I haven't figured out why I can watch that film over and over again. Three years ago, I was at the funeral of the mother of a good friend in Tel Mond. I stood there at the funeral, it was the middle of the summer, lots of people, very hot and unpleasant, and there was noise from other funerals nearby, and I'm standing next to the grave and hearing the moving words but no one else is hearing them because there's no amplification system and in the midst of all this chaos and all his pain, I see my friend's father trying to organize the ceremony. I told myself that I was going to make it my business to organize dignified funeral ceremonies. Then a year or two went by and one day I was browsing on the Internet and I came across the Secular Ritual Institute and I met Yiftah Shiloni. He suggested that I take on the area of mourning and a year ago, I got a call from Alei Shalekhet."

For Alei Shalekhet, he organizes funeral ceremonies, memorial services and farewell ceremonies when cremation is involved. "There's a more or less uniform structure that I created for these ceremonies eulogies, poetry and prose excerpts integrated with the family, the lowering of the coffin and after that Kaddish or El Maleh Rahamim or more reading excerpts. The deceased's life history is interwoven between each part."

Kenar meets with the family right after he is notified by Alei Shalekhet. "The family always cooperates. That whole part is very fascinating, because you meet families and people in the most emotional moments of their lives. I hear about the deceased's life and I suggest pieces of poetry and of music. There are families who want everyone to sing together a song that was beloved by the deceased. The songs 'Ha'ish Hahu' (the Shlomo Artzi tune with lyrics that say, 'Where are there more people like that man?) and 'Eli, Eli' are especially popular. Some people prefer classical music. I've put together a booklet of songs for people to choose from."The meeting with the family lasts about two hours and then Kenar prepares a "ceremony file" that includes a commemoration page with a poem or song and a picture of the deceased, and this is distributed to all the people who come to the funeral. Kenar has not become indifferent to his clients. "On the contrary, each time I'm sad all over again. I'm not detached from what's happening and from what they're feeling. And at wedding ceremonies, I'm happy all over again each time and know that it means I'm doing my job well."

Due to the increase in demand, the institute has already held one course to train people to lead mourning ceremonies. Of the 12 participants, six are now active in the field. Kenar says that he recommends it as a profession, "but with certain caveats. It's not for everyone. You have to be sensitive and strong at the same time. And it surely shouldn't be one's sole occupation. A person needs to do other things to balance himself." He, for example, is also a yoga teacher.

The whole package collecting and preparing the body, a ceremony with a leader who comes to the family home beforehand to plan it out, setting up the chairs in the funeral home, providing umbrellas if necessary, flowers, an amplification system, commemorative pages, a crew on hand to assist with the burial, a tombstone cost Alei Shalekhet clients between NIS 18,000-20,000, not including the price of the plot. In other words, cremation accounts for about half the price.

In the shadow of the crematorium, I was invited to a picnic. Three folding chairs and a triangular plastic table were set up next to the eastern wall. Inside, the corpse continued to burn in the oven, while coffee bubbled in the finjan on the gas burner. It was twilight and, to the west, a beautiful sunset was just starting. I hoped with all my heart that the odor I was smelling and the particles of ash I imagined I was seeing weren't what I thought they were. But the nausea that rose in me was definitely for real. "Coffee?" Amir affably asked me. And I replied that I never drink coffee without milk.