3rd April, 2021

The Living and the Dead

An excerpt from shifu Bluestein's book: 'Israelis: Your Guide to Their Culture'.


I would like to ask for the forgiveness of my readers of other religions, for I could only expertly write and comment about the traditions pertaining to the dead from a Jewish point of view.

A deceased person is called the ‘niftar’ in Hebrew, meaning: ‘he who had gotten rid of (this life)’. Another word used is ‘ha manoah’, which could be roughly traslated as ‘the restee’. A Jew of faith would say, that such a person has “returned his soul to his creator”.

In the Tanah (Old Testament) in Sefer Bereshit (Book of Genesis), it is written: “…ki afar ata, ve el afar tashuv” – for you are ashes (dirt; soil), and to ashes you shall return . This encapsulates the belief in the Jewish religion, that man “was made of the Earth (literally the soil)”. A companion and related belief, is that whilst the body is of the Earth, the Soul is from God.
In light of these important tenets of Judaism, two things are required of those for care for the deceased. Firstly, that they shall be brought to burial very quickly, for it is believed that the Soul must be allowed to ‘depart and return’ as soon as possible, which it could do fully only once the body is ‘at rest’. Secondly, that the body of the dead be returned to the Earth in a state as natural as possible.
This makes for a big difference in approach between Christian and Jewish burial. The Christians most frequently await a few days, often over a week, to bury their dead. They are treated with makeup, placed in nice clothing, presented in an open coffin to family and friends when possible, and placed in the ground inside of the coffin. Jews are buried hastily, typically within less than 48 hours. They are not ‘presented’ openly to crowds, and their bodies are never dressed once they have been stripped of their last outfits. Eventually, they are buried naked, but usually dressed in thin plain white ‘pajama’ made of hemp, to prevent their decaying nude figure from being displayed to those who grieve. Neither would any Jewish body be covered in makeup or injecting with chemicals which preserve the figure, as is the custom amongst Christians, as this violates the notion of ‘ashes to ashes’, and is anyhow taken to be somewhat artificial and improper in the eyes of Jewish Israelis.

Upon arrival to the cemetery, the body would be placed on a pedestal, commonly in the open air if the weather permits. Family, friends and other visitors would be given several hours to arrive and gather around the body. A rabbi who is employed by a special company catering for cemeteries, will provide religious blessings, interwoven with minor personal anecdotes. The focus of the rabbis throughout would be the religious duties, and not the biography of the deceased. Then, people would be allowed to voluntarily and gradually step up behind the pedestal, facing the audience, and give speeches and eulogies. The custom is that while giving such speeches and eulogies, one would do the utmost to refrain from speaking ill of the dead. As the people speak in this context, they are very seldom interrupted, with the exception of crying or shouts of agony. Generally speaking, despite the deafening silence which makes for the bulk of the time, Jewish funerals are not a quiet affair, and those with strong emotions are allowed and expected to be able to express them. Songs are atypical, even if they are sad.
Hilonim sometimes opt for a non-religious funeral, a custom which has grown in popularity in the two decades preceding the writing of this book. Such funerals are each distinct, and do not follow a set pattern.
State funerals follow all of the religious edicts, but have added ceremonial aspects and customs to them. They are usually reserved to current and former top political figures, but are sometimes also orchestrated for people whom politicians deemed “culturally important” (based on vague standards). Many honorable figures in the history of the country, such as David Ben-Gurion, have specifically written into their last will and testament, that they wish to avoid having a State funeral, as it is pompous and wasteful. Those wishes are always respected.

There are occasions when thousands or more people wish to follow the deceased. Mass-funerals as such would take place with a car carrying the body parading the streets of a given city, or several, and later only a few hundred people at most would be physically allowed into the cemetery.

It is indeed very important for Jewish people, to escort the dead ‘on their final journey’. That is, on the way to the cemetery when possible, and later within the cemetery, from the mourning stand to the grave. Once the crowed has arrived at the grave, additional blessings would be said, final words spoken, and the body would be gently lowered into the hole, to have been dug in advance. The soil taken out of the earth to dig the hole is used to cover it also after the dead person is inside. The men traditionally pick up shovels and haul the sand back into place. No one is verbally asked to undertake the task, but several of the men silently volunteer, as it is considered an utmost honour. The actions perpetrated in favour of the dead by the living, are referred to as a form of ‘hesed shel emet’ – true altruism. That is because, the dead would not be able to ‘return a favour’.

Israeli families like to take mental notes and keep tabs over who came to attend their festivities, but also their funerals. To miss a wedding one has been invited to, is considered highly impolite. To miss a funeral when one could come, is a major moral sin, which would be hard to undo, unless one makes a special effort during the Shiv’a (of which shall be written on the following pages).

Israeli cemeteries can be quite large, but are also very crowded. This situation arises because of several reasons. The Jews do not construct many cemeteries. Israel is a small country, and there is not a lot of public space within or next to cities to build their massive cemeteries of preference. Also, Judaism forbids the taking out of bones out of cemeteries. Even the bones of ancient Jews are seldom disturbed, and in the event that archaeologists need to vacate them, a rabbi would supervise their renewed burial elsewhere, with special religious rites being performed .

While the halls where the podiums for newly-arrived bodies tend to be spacious, once the people cross into the area where the graves are, walking becomes difficult, due to the graves being extremely close to one-another, sometimes almost touching. That again, is due to the shortage in ‘afterlife realestate’. This unfortunate reality can make a grave somewhat of a mildly-heavy expense, unless one does not mind to buried at the very edge of an enourmous area. Knowing this, many Israelis purchase their gravesite, often for themselves and other family members together, decades before their passing. It is considered a ‘wise investment’ by many. A lot of Israelis would also be willing to pay more money to be buried next to famous people, though seldom television celebrities, actors and such. Rather, people would pay extra to be close to a famous leader or rabbi. The merit of afterlife neighbours, it seems, is judged based on actual greatness of spirit, and not mere notoriety. This actually has a religious logic of sorts to it, as some believe such men or women would carry more favour for those around them in the eyes of God.

The graves, most commonly, include a headstone (erected vertically), at the base of which would be a gravestone (laid horizontally). The headstone would be positioned at the head of the gravestone, aligned with where the head of the deceased would be pointing to, underneath. Both of these are nearly always made of marble nowadays, which by cultural (not religious) custom, is preferred over plain gray stones. The marble is of beige or cream colour. Some families pay for more expensive headstones and gravestones, made of granite.

When the dead are buried and their grave filled, only a pile of soil remains, with a small temporary sign placed above it. Exactly a month following the funeral, the family and some friends would gather at the cemetery once more, for a special ceremony called ‘the revelation of the headstone’, during which the final version of the grave is enshrined and commemorated.
Either the headstone or the gravestone would bear information about the deceased: Full name, nickname if extant, dates of birth and death, sometimes also important locations in life and death. The other areas of the marble would often specify more personal remarks, based on the preference of the family. Since the late 20th Century CE, it has become popular to use machines to etch a picture of the deceased into some part of the marble. At times, other figures and shapes may be included, engraved into the marble or made from it, such as the symbol of a heart. Religious symbolism is redundant, as clearly everyone are Jewish – Christians and Muslims have separate cemeteries. Some families are exceptionally original with their designs, and I have even seen a tombstone in the shape of a small wheelchair. Famous rabbis sometimes have their grave surrounded by a small marble museuleum, borrowing from Greek and Roman traditions – something they would never admit. Jews are never buried inside of synagogues, like some Christians do within churches and cathedrals. During a war or a massive natural disasters, the dead are often initially buried in mass-graves, and later dug out, identified, and put to rest separately.

The headstones and gravestones often have a small hole dug into them, with a petite glass door, meant to allow for the inclusion of a tiny candle. Such are called ‘Soul Candles’, and are lit in order to respect and support the souls of the dead, during visitations. Many graves nowadays also have marble vases for flowers attached to them, or otherwise small areas of shrubbery grown around them by family members. My beloved grandfather, Moshe Melamed, continued to frequent his parents’ graves all of his elderly years, several times a years. He would cater for the plants around them, and made sure they did not overtake the graves themselves.

Exceptionally, soldiers who died while fulfilling their duties, would be buried in a special military cemetery, in simple and compostable wooden coffins. In those cemeteries, all of the above-ground coffins and tombstones are of the same plain marble and design, completely uniform. The burial is free. The surrounding vegetation and its maintenance are paid for by the State, and therefore tend to look nice and tidy. They are however just are crowded as their civilian counterparts, albeit more orderly.

Other occasions on which the State would pay for burial or for a tombstone and gravestone, are when the deceased have no relatives, for Holocaust survivors, victims of terrorism, parents whose children died in service, and a person who was an organ donor. Families of victims of terrorism may sometimes also receive financial assistance with bringing relatives from abroad to attend a funeral. In 2002CE, the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled, that the “right of a person for swift, proper and honorable burial” is a constitutional right, for “a person has a right to dignity in life, but also in death”.

When the Jews visit a cemetery, they would place small stones on top of the graves. This is done already after the initial burial is over, and done also even for the graves of strangers. There are several meanings to this. It is a manner in which the dead are respected, and also to demonstrate publicly that a grave was visited recently.

Feeling the need to resolve the crowded situation in their cemeteries, the Israeli Jews have been trying to work out all sorts of solutions. There are secular Jews nowadays prefer to be cremated or be otherwise buried in an ‘original’ way, but such things are considered religiously most improper. There are also those who buy one deep burial ground, and have two family members buried atop of each-other (traditionally, husband and wife are buried next to one-another).
A more favourable approach has been the construction of ‘burial buildings’. Such buildings have no external walls, and on each floor, many graves are stacked on top of one-another in several rows. There is also an inner layer to the building which physically connects the interior of all of the stacked graves into the Earth, to ensure that the bodies of the dead ‘touch the ground’, albeit indirectly. One advantage to this method is that the building protects the mourners and visitors from harsh weather, whilst most of the cemetery spaces in Israel are open fields. Because field burial is expensive, and wall-burial in buildings is often offerred for free, it is expected that within a few dozen years, the majority of graves in Israel would be found in buildings.

It is interesting to note that historically, before their exile from the Land of Israel, Jews often buried their dead in caverns. Horizontal lines of many open holes would be dug into the walls of caves, into which the bones of the dead would be placed. Many such locations still exist throughout the country, but Israelis consider them ‘primitive’, and no one buries their relatives in that manner anymore.

In Israel there are people who are from a ‘priestly lineage’. Meaning, that Jewish society considers them to have descended from ancestors who were priests in one of the two historical temples in Jerusalem. This is usually known by such people’s surnames. Those in posession of family names such as “Cohen”, “Levi”, “Rapaport”, “Kahanovitch”, “Kahneman”, and “K.a.t.z” (acronym for Cohen Tsedek). There are many more examples I have not listed here.
A so-called ‘priest’, wherein he is male, has various limitations placed upon him by Jewish religion. One of them is that he is not allowed to enter a graveyard. In fact, a priest should attempt to avoid any direct occupation with the dead, or even being in the same room with them. Israeli Jewish cemeteries even have signs on their outer walls, proclaiming: “Priests are not allowed!”. However, because the commandment to bury the dead (also the non-Jewish) is from the Old Testament and is of utmost importance, if the priest is among but a few people who could cater for the task, he must partake in it. Priests are buried all the same as the rest of the Jews, and are not treated as priviledged by other Jews during their lifetime.

As you can discern, burial is taken very seriously in Israel. To not bury a person is considered taboo in Jewish religion and culture. Any sort of activity in cemeteries which is not related to burial or religious rights, is strictly forbidden and enforced. The descecration of graves, is seen as an offense worthy of only the worst criminals, and Israelis are quick to assume that someone who had done such a thing must be insane. Some more radical Haredim have been known to interrupt with archaeological investigations and even destroy camps and equipment, in order ‘to protect’ ancient graves, even if those were merely suspected as having been Jewish.