My partner, a very smart and level-headed woman, routinely paid large sums by corporate leaders to help them strategize, recently informed me she had volunteered to spend hours minutely washing an old woman’s corpse in preparation for burial. It is a Jewish ritual called Tahara. After the cleaning, the body was dressed in a white shroud and placed in a casket. Prayers were recited for the benefit of the dead woman and her soul and perhaps for the souls of the six volunteers and their community. In the process they addressed the deceased to ask her forgiveness for any indignity she might suffer at their hands.
I was astonished. I puzzled over her motivation as well as how to make sense of what struck me as anachronistic practice. There is a more or less well-known Jewish tradition of keeping a vigil over the deceased while reading psalms aloud—the all-nighter originally intended to ward off rats, the readings to provide comfort to the soul believed to be still hanging around—but this was new to me.
Charon, by Michelangelo
The whole watching, cleaning, dressing, talking to the corpse suggests an atavistic, very primitive belief that there’s still a person in that disorganized, putrefying flesh. Whatever motivates survivors to bury their loved ones in steel or lead-lined caskets surrounded by concrete, to store them in mausoleum drawers, it is the very antipode of the Jewish rule of rapid burial in a shroud, in insistence on fulfilling the “dust to dust” injunction. Jews forbid the exaltation or even the preservation of the corpse—demanding that the body be exposed to all the agencies that will hasten its transformation to fertilizer. It is a position with much to commend it. The Greeks and Romans seem to have been aligned with the idea when they placed their dead in lime-lined, flesh-eating sarcophagi. So too are the increasingly fashionable green burials, which, if I’ve got it right, in the name of environmental sensitivity, toss the corpse as is—without chemicals, coffin, cremation, or concrete container–into a giant composter.
Being dead and what it means to those not yet dead has been a perplexity for as long as humans, and, from what I read, apes and elephants and insects, have confronted the extinguished of their species. There are, of course, endless speculations as to whether any part of the living creature persists after death and, if so, in what form; but the impulse to dispose of the body seems to be universal, even if the means of disposal, is not. To protect the health of their crowded colonies, ants, bees, and termites remove and bury their dead, either far from the nest or in a special chamber. Apes and elephants and whales grieve their departed and place their remains (for elephants, often just a tusk) somewhere out of the way and cover them with branches and mud.
The oldest human burial appears to be by Neanderthals about 130,000 years ago and involved placing the body in a pit with a couple of utensils, which suggests they believed that the dead one could make use of them. By 115,000 years ago, Neanderthal graves in Israel show deliberate burials and positioning of bodies in caves. Sixty-thousand-year old Neanderthal graves in Kurdistan contain clusters of pollen and plant remains allowing the conclusion they were bringing flowers to funerals.
For the ancient Greeks, burial was a sacred responsibility; without burial, a soul was condemned to wander without rest in the realms of the dead. The Greeks would close the eyes of the corpse and place a coin in its mouth to ensure the deceased had passage money for Charon, boatman on the river Styx. Like these contemporary Jewish volunteers they washed the body and clothed it in white, and disposed of it within a day. This was done by burial if the family was poor, by burning if they were wealthy or high status. The similarities between the Jewish and Greek practices makes me wonder who started them, or whether they were developed in parallel, or were perhaps borrowed from some other people.
In the centuries before the Muslims, with their adopted Jewish customs, conquered Persia, when Zoroastrianism was the ruling belief in that country, there was neither burying nor burning since the tenets of the faith held that earth, air, fire, and water were sacred and must not be polluted by a decaying body. The alternative was abandoning the body outside. The Parsis, as the Zoroastrians of India are known, fed their dead to vultures until very recently when the vulture population was decimated by poisoning, and now must resort to cremation or burial. Luckier with their vultures are the Chinese of Tibet, Mongolia, and Qinghai who chop their loved ones up before offering them to the avian cleaners. This funerary custom is called “sky burial.”
Not only the Greeks, but the Jews, among others, conceived of the departed soul as having to journey to its eventual resting place. Diaspora Jews, including my girlfriend and her Tahara cohort, placed some dirt from Israel in the coffin so the dead soul, deprived of the opportunity to be buried in the Holy Land will somehow find its way there. Being buried in Israel means forgiveness is ensured and being positioned where God will come first to resurrect and reunite the dead with their loved ones. The idea strikes me as a little sketchy, based on somewhat questionable predicates, like the soul hanging around inside the coffin and somehow—via smell or taste?—figuring out when it’s arrived at the right bit of earth in which to take up occupancy. Apparently the Talmud insists, even more fantastically, that it would not just be the soul, but the corpse itself, that will burrow through the earth to Israel where the reuniting will take place.
All obvious nonsense, of course, so it’s reasonable to ask whether one should be following two- thousand-year-old burial rules any more than one would be guided by two-thousand-year-old principles of medicine, dentistry, or navigation. Equally obvious, though, is that people are still people, with the same emotional wiring they had millennia ago, with the same need to process profound loss as apes and elephants and whales, and that intellectual development does not obviate that need. That it’s nonsense doesn’t mean it’s meaningless.
The ancient rituals have survived because they presumably contain an emotional logic, because they provide comfort, a way to assuage animal grief, to make suffering bearable. They help us find a path out of the shock, fear, and helplessness. They offer a simulacrum of control, an illusion of insight, most especially, allowing the pretense that there’s a life after this one: maybe a variety of the self-protective numbness that accompanies the awareness that death has arrived. We don’t have a great vocabulary for internal states.
The treatment of the corpse, the rituals preparatory to the burial are rationalized by their respective religions as final acts of respect to the deceased. They reflect the continued affection of mourning family and friends and perhaps reassure the unrelated volunteers, as terrified of their mortality as the next guy, that when it’s their turn, they’ll be shown the same deference. More likely, as with cultists everywhere, reassurance comes via expression of a common belief, however invalid.
We all know what self-delusion is, what lying and fabrication to enable denial is. And, although denial unquestionably has its merits, I would argue that there’s a greater peace to be had in accepting the material world in all its impermanence. Acknowledging the inevitability of loss and the sorrow it brings is profound and produces its own kind of comfort. We are to the world, as the late Carl Sagan observed, as mites on a plum, orbiting a very ordinary star on the edge of a galaxy of billions of stars, our galaxy just one of billions of other galaxies of billions of stars, comprising a universe that more and more appears to be only one of many. Pretending to significance, let alone centrality, in this unencompassable vastness makes us look as silly as King Canute’s sycophants expecting the tides to obey his orders, as evilly ignorant as the priests burning Bruno for his insistence on an infinite universe.
My very smart girlfriend would likely not dispute any of this. I suspect that for her it’s about a bunch of competing values: maintaining traditions in the face of a world that wants to wipe out Jews along with their traditions, supporting her fellow congregants, her community, in what matters to them, volunteering for a task that very few would take on, confronting and overcoming the squeamishness and natural aversion to touching the dead. And, of course, exploring her own fears, seeking insights into her own views of the final exit, as each of us must inevitably do.