In his excellent book Curtains, Tom Jokinen quotes US undertaker BT Hathaway on the subject of home funerals. Hathaway reckons a home funeral suits “the 5 per cent who have money, time, resources, education and political and emotional will.” With preconditions like these, how come it ever got as high as 5 per cent? Hathaway concludes: “It’s poetic, but the truth is, I don’t know that many poetic families.”
Poetic? I’m not sure about this elegant disparagement. Jokinen draws his own wrong conclusion: “This is of course the same argument for why people eat at Pizza Hut instead of milling their own wheat and breeding their own pepperoni cattle.” Here we have an overstatement. You don’t have to grow a tree to make the coffin, neither do you have to plant your own jute to make the lining.
But convenience is a seductive thing. And time is of the essence. A dead body is potentially a chaotic, eruptively ugly thing; it makes a lot of sense to call the experts in and keep a safe distance. And we reflect here that, when people die, those who loved them urgently want the body back from wherever in the world it conked out. They want this with a fervour which arguably defies reason. This may be not so pronounced in the UK, where dead soldiers were buried where they fell as late as the Falklands war. But in the US the historic clamour to have the body returned led to a stream of dug-up coffins coming back, once hostilities were over, from the battlefields of the first and second world wars.
So: distance matters. The body must come home. Propinquity is good. But closing the distance and engaging with that body? NO! At the last, we need our cordon sanitaire, cowards that we are. Here we record the loss of the lesson of the teachings of all the great religions that the dead body should be treated as an object of veneration.
At the end of his book Jokinen begins to reap the harvest of his experiences as an undertaker’s understrapper. Here’s what he says:
“Instead of deflecting a confrontation with death through commerce, you face it, fill the hole by hand, and then get on with the hard work of mourning, knowing that instead of passively choosing an object from a catalogue and subcontracting the ritual to someone else, you’ve acted, taken a stand, not against dirt, in fact, but in favour of it. An act with a meaning.”
Later the same day he meets his wife for supper. “I have seen the future,” I tell her. “And it’s Jewish.”
In other words, he finds the middle ground between doing it all (the home funeral) and doing nothing: giving in to “the impulse to fix grief through shopping.”
A lot of religious law has to do with physical and emotional health. Much law relating to diet has been rendered obsolete by simple advances in hygiene. Leviticus is for that reason looking decidedly old hat these days, and pigs unfairly deprecated. But a number of Jewish practices, however ritualised, retain their (thank you, Mr Hathaway) poetic value because they promote healthy grieving.
Sitting shiva, for example. Taking yourself out of the loop, telling your employer to get stuffed and staying at home for either seven or three days after the burial. Time exclusively spent getting your head around it but, importantly, time which is bounded. Got to be good.
And then there’s the work of the chevra kadisha, the little community team that performs the tahara – the ritual preparation of Jews for burial. This involves the right prayers, of course, and also the washing and dressing of the body with immense respect, concluding with an apology to it should anything done have offended it.
I’m not making a pitch here for the return of the splendid and formidable laying-out woman. All I would observe is that, if a dead body is held precious, then it makes good emotional sense to play a part, under the eye of experts, in getting it ready for burial.
There’s a very good little video film which talks about the work of the chevra kadisha and shows the tahara performed in a funeral director’s mortuary. I’d embed it if I had the skills. If you want to skip straight to the tahara, start 6 ½ minutes in.