An excerpt from the book, Spirits of the Bayou: Sanctuaries, Cemeteries and Hauntings
Walking through the stones reading the epitaphs, you become one with the hallowed ground. You subtract the dates, decipher the age, and wonder, what did they do with their life. You grieve for the mother who lost her children to yellow fever, some dying just days apart. Reading a stone brings purpose to a life, and knowledge. Soon you get lost in pages and pages of history, obsessed in learning more.
In my travels examining cemeteries across the country, much attention is given to the architecture and symbols upon the stones, but it was the Jewish cemeteries that brought me beyond the marker. They embark on a spiritual journey from the moment a person draws their last breath, preparing the body for burial and giving the spirit a proper send off to the “ever after.” All traditions are born from the Bible and repeated for thousands of years.
In the book, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, author Maurice Lamm has brought comfort to many grieving Jews. A rabbi from New Jersey, he offers solace in a beautiful symmetry of words that lend a deeper meaning to both life and death. In his introduction he reminds everyone that we are a global community, and how death often speaks volumes in how others view life. Do we follow our hearts and our deep-seated convictions of religious traditions, or do we succumb to the easy way out following a cookie-cutter commercial send off?
The book evaluates the laws and customs of Judaism applying their relative merit according to today’s modern sciences and practices. Well versed in the behavioral sciences and the empathy of humans in dealing with death, Lamm brings a more realistic approach to the Jewish ancestral heritage. He helps guide the survivor from the dark abyss of grieving and bewilderment to the “daylight of life.”
To be clear, the burial practices listed here follow the more Orthodox and Conservative traditions as opposed to the Reform Jewish customs. During the last minutes of life, it is suggested no one leave, and after death those present must close the eyes and mouth of the deceased and cover them with a sheet. The body should not be touched except to orient its position so the feet face the doorway. A candle is placed near the head of the deceased and a call is made to relatives and friends to pray and ask forgiveness for the deceased. While the body is still in the home, mourners cover the mirrors in the entire house to de-emphasize any type of vanity.
Continuing the more traditional or Orthodox burial, the body should never be left alone and accompanied by either a relative or a shomer (watcher). During that time the watchman recite passages from the Book of Psalms.
The rabbi or funeral director will assist in making the arrangements for a proper preparation, a ritual called the tahara (purification) where the body is washed, clothed and a volunteer sits with him day and night. It fulfills the biblical passage, “As he came, so shall he go,” according to Ecclesiastes (5:16) which prescribes to a newborn whom is immediately washed and enters the world clean and made pure, so shall those who depart the world in the tahara.
A chevra kadisha, a Jewish burial society, is called upon with volunteers who assist several congregations in prepping the deceased for the funeral.
Perhaps the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK) says it best in their brochure, that our bodies are mere receptacles for our souls, our innermost being. The Jews call it the neshama, the essence of a person, along with their thoughts, deeds, and experiences. After the body dies, the neshama remains until the body is buried. And that is why the traditional Jewish funeral focuses on the feelings of the deceased; the body, the neshama is in a crucial transition.
Jews believe the body knows what’s going on and it would be insensitive says the NASCK to leave the body alone, and thus the importance of a shomer to lend comfort, reading from the Book of Psalms until their journey is complete. The washing and dressing is critical as the soul will be entering a new life and must be presentable. However, all must be dressed in a consistent garment so the souls shall be equal. The book notes it is a practice that began nineteen hundred years ago.
Harkening back to the ancient temples in Jerusalem, the deceased wears a white linen or muslin garment, along with hat, shirt, pants, shoes and belt, and is then covered with an outer shroud with no pockets because the neshama needs no worldly belongings on its journey. There are no artificial means used such as embalming or makeup and there is no open casket.
Following a more natural form of burial and the biblical mantra, “dust to dust,” the body is placed in the ground as quickly as possible in a degradable wooden casket. Known as a Kosher Jewish casket, dowels are used rather than nails in the construction, and three holes are drilled into the bottom of the casket to expedite the decomposition. The neshama cannot return to heaven until its body is buried, and thus it must be buried quickly with natural decomposition.
Orthodox and Conservative Jews believe cremation and mausoleums are forbidden according to NASCK as it prevents the natural process of returning the body back to earth.
Ironically, many cultures and religions are now following the Jewish tradition by dedicating the monies allocated for elaborate caskets and flowers to a medical research association for the disease that afflicted the deceased.
Reform Jews can choose cremation, mausoleums or in-ground burials. Jews, like Christians, are usually buried in their corresponding church or synagogue’s cemeteries.
Most Jewish cemeteries follow strict guidelines in the absence of flowers at the funeral and gravesite. When visiting the gravesite, rather than leaving flowers, a small stone is placed on top of the headstone or on the ledge of the coping as a sign of love, honor and respect. Some burial sites have many stones, and some cemeteries offer a container of small stones and pebbles.
he history of and lineage of Jewish Synagogues in the Greater New Orleans area can be found in the Sanctuaries section of the book. See Table of Contents for more details.
Gates of Prayer/Chevra Tehilim/Beth Israel Cemetery* 4824 Canal St, New Orleans
National Association of Chevra Kadisha, http://www.nasck.org/about.htm
New Chevra Thilim Cemetery, 5000 Iberville Street, New Orleans, http://www.jewishnola.com
Ahavas Sholem, AnsheSfard Cemetery, Beth Israel Cemetery, 4400 Elysian Fields Avenue, New Orleans
Locally, funeral homes such as Tharp-Sontheimer-Tharp provide rooms for the tahara tradition. Tharp-Sontheimer- Tharp Funeral Home, 1600 North Causeway Blvd, Metairie, 504-835-2341, www.tharpsontheimerfh.com