The dead beat

The other day my three-year-old daughter told me she missed her cemetery. (Until a few weeks ago, we lived near a beautiful, historic cemetery in Washington, D.C. We'd take walks in it most days and read tombstones as we played and ran around.) I loved hearing her say that because I always loved the cemeteries I grew up around, too. As a pastor's kid, I wasn't shielded from death and dying. I love Lutheran funerals so much that I've been known to attend ones for members of my congregation I wasn't close to. And while I never planned out my wedding, I have written down what hymns I want sung at my funeral. And I've told my husband I want as simple a box as possible and no embalming. I do want a nice tombstone and I want my family to come visit me often. In my perfect journalism world, we'd get regular stories on death and dying. I don't know why we don't see more stories on these matters considering how much many people think about it. I think there's a tremendous curiosity and desire for information and the angles are almost limitless.

Well, the New York Times ran a piece this week that I loved. Religion reporter Paul Vitello wrote about chevra kadisha (roughly translated as a Jewish burial society). Here's how the fascinating story ("Reviving a Ritual of Tending to the Dead") begins:

The volunteers are taught to begin at the head, washing the face before proceeding to the neck and right shoulder. The right side is to be washed before the left side, the front before the back. There are prayers to say. Small talk is forbidden.

The Jewish protocol for tending to the dead governs almost every interaction between the living and the deceased from the moment of death until burial. The ritual, which has been part of religious law for two millenniums, mandates the protection of the physical and spiritual remains.

But for many decades, most Jews in the United States have lost touch with those protocols -- if they have ever heard of them -- in favor of conventional funeral home services that replace volunteers with professionals who, by their nature, skip the more metaphysical and personal elements of the process.

Now, a movement to restore lost tradition has motivated a new generation of Jewish volunteers to learn a set of skills that was common knowledge for many of their great-grandparents: the rituals of bathing, dressing and watching over the bodies of neighbors and friends who have died.

It is a nationwide revival propelled in almost equal parts, experts say, by an emerging sense of mortality among baby boomers, a reaction against the corporate character of the funeral home industry and a growing cultural receptivity to past spiritual practices, even some that make many people squeamish.

When I read a lede like that, I can't help but think about how awesome the religion beat is. On the one hand, this is just a basic story about a basic facet of life and death for a community of believers. On the other hand, this is precisely the type of story that's almost impossible to find these days. David Cay Johnston has a Nieman Reports essay arguing that the foundation of journalism is beat reporting and that the foundation is crumbling. It's sad and true. I could be wrong but this is the type of story that a reporter probably begins thinking about while covering some related issue. He keeps mental notes on chevros kadisha as he hears sources mention them and soon there's enough for a good story.

Anyway, this report has lots of interesting sources and quotes. I thought this one was nice and substantive:

"We don't think of this being we are preparing for burial as a 'body,'" said Rabbi Zohn, an Orthodox Jew whose knowledge of burial tradition is mainly sought after by the non-Orthodox. "It's a person; and that person in our view is still alive in a parallel world, very much aware of what's happening."

There's data indicating that the percentage of Jewish burials that incorporate rituals is on the rise in the last 15 years. We learn about the books that influenced the movement. We learn that Orthodox communities maintained the chevra kadisha tradition while Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated tended to lose it. So there's an anecdote about a Conservative congregation in Brooklyn that started a society after sensing a missing link in the community. And there are really interesting details about who gets to prepare which bodies, their code of silence and the privacy they maintain. I had a few questions as I was reading -- such as what Jewish law says about embalming -- and they were quickly answered in the piece.

One reader who submitted this story did offer two slight criticisms. The story doesn't mention the difference between Jewish funeral homes and other funeral homes that Jews may use. That's important because many Jewish funeral homes are affiliated with a Chevra Kadisha (organized by a local Orthodox synagogue or yeshiva) so the burial preparation service is frequently offered that way. This being a New York-based story, that relevant detail should be part of the story. The reader also felt the story could have been even better if it had spent more time on the experience of the Chevra Kadisha members. The reader mentioned that helping prepare someone for burial was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of his life and that getting more feedback from others might have made that aspect of the story stronger.

All in all, though, this is a great report and well worth a read.

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