Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Jewish Perspective

Working in the funeral business over the years, I've had the opportunity to take part in many different types of funerals. One that I have never been a part of is one that you would think that I would, is a Jewish service. After all, I am named after my Uncle Stewart Winstein. My aunt married Stewart before I was born. Although she was raised Catholic, she chose to convert and raise my cousin in the Jewish faith.

That being said, I do know a little about the faith and I know that in the Jewish faith, they believe that the body must be buried whole. I won't go into detail just yet. But basically, that means that they will not go for the ever popular trend of cremating the body. So while putting together the showroom/ selection room at the funeral home, I ran across a catalog that contained urns with the Star of David engraved on them.

There were wood urns that resembled books.

 There were metal urns that were sleek and modern.

There were classically styled urns that colored the Star of David with the color of the flag from Israel.

There was even jewelry that could contain a small amount of ashes to be carried with you wherever you went.

The whole idea of urns and cremation in general seems a little strange when thinking of a Jewish funeral. So I decided to look up what the official views on cremation are in the Synagogue.

I found this article from Rabbi Boruch E. Levin. It's a little long but as someone that makes a living taking people to the cemetery, I found his words to be intriguing and even entertaining. I almost wish other religions felt this way. That being said, I'm looking forward to being put into the oven when I'm done.

A Perspective on Cremation

Did you ever notice that when the news channels want to show the ultimate desecration that protesters have for an opposing country, they display pictures of flag burnings or forms of our leaders burned in effigy? Tragically, in the year 1244, when Gentiles wanted to disgrace our religion, they took 24 wagon loads of Torah scrolls, Medrash and the Talmud and burned them in the center of Paris. Around that period, Maimonides' books were also defamed through burning. We burn that which we wish to discard, humiliate or degrade. Before pollution concerns, we routinely burned our garbage as a quick elimination of a problem. But we never burn or discard something holy or precious.
The experts have predicted that in the very near future a full 50% of United States dispositions of human remains will be cremated. After death, families will choose to turn their loved ones into ashes, gases and vapor. Unfortunately this practice has influenced Jewish families as well and more and more are considering this end. I think it behooves us to look at our Jewish teachings and traditions before such a decision is made and since our reaction to death is really governed by how we lived, lets begin there.
Our belief is that all of Creation was made to assist humans on their journey. Why else can we slaughter animals and enjoy their succulent meat? Why can we skin leopards for their beautiful fur? Why are we 'better' or more important than beautiful trees that we use for gorgeous wooden bookcases?
Practically everything we do and own, shouts the message of a higher purpose. But this comes with a price – you – humans – better be greater – wiser, and even holier than the rest of creation and you better have an elevated calling, because if not, then we should be vegetarians and maybe we should think of building nursing homes for old chickens that should never see the inside of our ovens.

But what is this higher purpose? What does our Creator expect from us?
As Jews we are told through the Torah, 'to emulate our Creator, to do loving kindness, to respect our elders and to fulfill the commands of G-d'. All these Mitzvos are avenues, Kabbalah tells us, designed by the Chief Designer, for us to become incrementally closer to Him – to become holier and less animalistic. Why were we given such wonderful talents, such awesome abilities, such powerful minds, if all we are expected to do is to eat, drink and be merry? G-d fused in each of us a Neshoma, a holy soul to be our light, our conscience, and our driving force, to do the good that is expected of us. We are, however, constantly, challenged by the darker side of a human, the evil side that pulls us down, and emphasizes only our physical. It is precisely that challenge that G-d appreciates and G-d rewards. But, understandably, if He rewards us here then that challenge diminishes. In order to see who really are the "few good men" – the rewards are given in the next world – a world in which we must have faith.
G-d promised a resurrection of the dead - t'chiyas hamaisim. Our Rabbis write that in nature we see a fascinating example of this in a caterpillar, a lowly creature that crawls ever so slowly. However, at the end of its existence – its first existence – it "dies", curls up in a cocoon and if we would dissect it then, it would look rotted. But amazingly, it re-incarnates to a beautiful existence – to a flying butterfly with gorgeous wings. Truly a t'chiyas hamasim. Maybe G-d wanted us to see an example of t'chiyas hamasim to "bring home" this phenomenon, this fundamental Jewish belief, because denying the resurrection is a major Jewish offense.
One of the reasons cited for the Jewish prohibition of cremation is that cremation demonstrates by its active destruction of the body, the disbelief in t'chiyas hamasim.
Cremation also indicates a lack of sensitivity to our lofty existence – our purposeful life – which contrasts so clearly the difference between us and that which we routinely eliminate. If we are truly the fusion of a G-dly soul to our body, then the body must be respected for housing that soul. "Man", the pinnacle of creation (indicated by man's existence coming chronologically last during creation) this tzelem E-lokim a form made in the "image of G-d" – surely cannot be shown the same quick end as something we wish to throw away. A Sefer Torah that has aged and is not readable, never ends up in a trash heap or burned but is buried in a place called geniza, which means hiding place, – so too should man. Just as the burning of a national flag is a moral offense because of what it signifies, so too, is the act of cremation.
No one, certainly not a son or daughter, would dream of mutilating their loved one after death. Judaism directs us to lovingly wash the deceased and dress them in spotlessly white shrouds after the taharah, the purification ceremony is performed, and we carefully place them in a casket to be lowered into the ground. The body is treated with the utmost respect. It is never left alone and we are not permitted to show any frivolity in its presence. The stark difference between this and a crematorium is so evident.
The Talmud tells us that if the torah wasn't given to us, we would learn much from animals. We would learn modesty from the cat. We would learn morality from the dove. We would learn integrity from the ant. In that light, I wish to mention a Midrash. When Adam sat in front of his dead son Hevel – the first dead human in history, he did not know what to do with the lifeless body. A raven flew near him carrying a dead raven in his beak. The raven proceeded to scrape the ground until a furrow was dug – large enough to place the dead bird in and then the raven covered and literally buried the dead bird. Adam saw this instinctive act of the raven and proceeded to do the same for the body of his son.

We will finish this article tomorrow. For now, go and slaughter an animal and enjoy it's succulent meat.


MorningAJ said...

Interesting piece. (Though anyone who thinks you learn modesty from a cat has never seen my cat washing himself!)

My people (traveller types - children of the earth) believe that you have to burn the body, and anything too closely associated with it, to ensure that the soul can be free. If you keep too many of the dead person's things you hold them back from the next life. Traditionally they would burn the caravan and everything in it - with the body inside.

Same idea - completely different approach.

John Gray said...

Yes I agree with AJ in interesting read...... I have learnt something new

Stew Adams said...

Like many religions that I have participated in their funeral rituals, I don't always agrees with them. I do respect them though. I'm always learning something new too.