DURHAM — When a Jewish person died thousands of years ago, volunteers emulated what the Bible says God did when Moses died: They washed and prepared the body and sat with it until burial – an ancient tradition still honored in the Triangle.
The four Jewish burial societies of the Triangle, with about 100 members in Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Cary, will meet one another for the first time Sunday to discuss their sometimes-challenging, always-spiritual volunteer work. The date, Feb. 17, coincides with the day on the Jewish calendar that Moses died. God buried Moses, goes the tradition, so burying someone else is the greatest act of kindness in the Jewish religion.
“The person you’re honoring is not going to be able to say thank you,” said Steven Sager, rabbi emeritus of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, who is organizing the get-together as part of his educational initiative Sicha, which brings people together for conversations about ancient Jewish texts. “So it is the truest expression of kindness, loyalty and caring for an individual and a community. That kind of work deserves honoring, and that’s the idea behind this event.”
A thousand years ago or today, the ritual would basically look the same: As soon as possible after death, a person is ritually washed and dressed in plain white linen. Volunteers say Hebrew prayers at each step, and they sprinkle soil from Israel on the person’s eyes. Bodies are not embalmed, and caskets should be made of simple wood with no nails, so they can decompose quickly. In Israel, coffins are often not used at all.
“The tradition and the law is that you’re supposed to be buried pretty much the way you came into the world,” said Saul Schiffman, who coordinates the Raleigh-Cary burial society, Chevra Kadisha.
Organized Jewish burial societies date from the Middle Ages, Sager said, and traditionally members are anonymous and do not charge for their services. In the Triangle, they have existed since the oldest synagogue in Raleigh, Beth Meyer, was founded in 1875. Many local Jews are buried in the Raleigh Jewish Cemetery that is affiliated with Beth Meyer.
The key difference between then and now is that people today are more likely to live far away from their families, so the actual burial of the body might be postponed longer than the day or so that would have been typical in ancient times.
Burial societies will serve people whether or not they are affiliated with a synagogue, and it is common that less adherent Jews who may not see themselves as religious will turn to the comfort of the burial tradition when a loved one dies, Sager said.
Since the practice is so fundamental to the Jewish faith, the volunteers can be any age or gender, he added. Between the washing and dressing in the funeral home and the actual burial, pairs of volunteers sometimes form an “honor guard” that watches over the body. It’s a practice called “shmirah.”
“Rituals are important in moments where words and language fail us,” Sager said. “They will sit with the body and pay attention to its presence in an unfinished state.”
The day of burial, society members will serve as pallbearers and physically carry the body to the grave.
Working so closely with the recently deceased can challenge volunteers, both emotionally and spiritually, Sager noted. Although the conversation on those challenges goes back centuries, he hopes to continue it with the meeting of all the Triangle burial society members Sunday.
“There are ancient texts that speak to this and reflect on it,” Sager said. “It’s good for people to know they are not alone in history in engaging in this holy work.”