Jewish Burial Practices
Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, PBS (February 6th, 2004)
Last week on the Death Reference Desk I wrote about American Muslims washing the dead body before a funeral. A friend from graduate school, Jakki, saw the post and sent me a fantastic PBS segment on the Jewish tradition of washing the dead. Jakki summed up postmortem body washing for both Islam and Judaism this way: “Jews do the same (another example of our common heritage).” And she is absolutely correct. Indeed, of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) it is the Christian Church which has moved the furthest away from washing the dead body. There are many, many historical reasons for the move away from body washing and I have a hunch that the practice might return.
Until that time, however, the contemporary practice of corpse washing falls mostly to Muslims and Jews.
Here is the lead for the video segment and interview on the PBS website. I’m putting it here for two reasons: 1.) some necessary vocabulary words are explained for all the goyim (like me) not familiar with the tahara AND 2.) because it explains that a mannequin and not a real corpse was used for the demo.
As with last week’s Muslim body washing post, note the combination of both traditional prayer and public health required protective gear.
BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a moving “Belief and Practice” segment this week on the Jewish tradition of tahara, the washing and purifying of a dead body, which is considered one of the greatest of all good deeds — mitzvot. Those who perform taharas are volunteer members of the burial society, chevra kadisha. Women attend to deceased women, men to men.
In Jewish practice, if possible, a body is buried within 24 hours. There is no embalming. Our producer Susan Goldstein found three women in Westchester County, New York — Rochel Berman, Nancy Klein, and Mina Crasson — who have been doing taharas for more than 20 years. They agreed to describe their work and demonstrate it on a mannequin, in keeping with the tradition of respecting the dead.
Happy Passover to one and all.