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Anthropological Quarterly 77.2 (2004) 289-301

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Who Takes Care of the Loved Ones?

The College of Judea and Samaria Ariel, Israel

Personal Experience as an Introduction

My mother died at the end of the nineties. Since I had been out of town, I arrived at the hospital only the next morning and was asked by the man in charge of the morgue, Russian by his accent, whether I wanted to see her. Viewing the corpse is objectionable according to Jewish religion (Lamm 2000:29ff.); thus I hesitated for a moment before accepting his offer. I asked to be left alone with her. He opened the drawer and left. And there I saw my sweet mother lying peacefully and intact. "Good bye, dear mother," I told her without words. Then, leaving the room I thanked the man for his kindness. Shortly afterwards I was on the phone talking to the members of "The Holy Association" (Hevra Kadisha) in order to arrange the funeral. "I just need your services," I told them rather impatiently, "and with as few prayers as possible." They were very polite and agreed to my requests. A young and emphatic rabbi dressed with a colorful, open vest, unlike the usual black attire of the members of the "Holy Association," conducted a short service. Contrary to my expectations, the ceremony was performed not in ancient incomprehensible language but in fluent and eloquent Hebrew. As is customary, he asked the deceased to forgive whatever harm the members of the Holy Association had [End Page 289] unintentionally caused her. After she was put in the grave I talked to her and parted from her once more. Shortly afterward the young rabbi left us. We stayed for a while near the new grave, listening silently to a Sibelius concerto, much loved by my mother. Finally we laid garlands of flowers and left the cemetery. Since tradition does not encourage frequent grave visitations (Lamm 2000:193ff.), no other ceremony, besides my private, made-up ceremony, in line with my mother's aesthetic values, was ever conducted, and the tombstone was laid in our absence.

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Figure 1
The old (traditional) cemetery of Tiberias.

In the fifties, at the age of ninety-two my grandmother passed away. Following the religious ceremony that took place in the old cemetery the entire family gathered at her small house for the Shiva (the seven days of mourning). During this period the close relatives kept on their torn garments from the funeral, sitting on low and inconvenient stools in the living room. As is customary, her sons were unshaven during the Shiva and wore soft ballet shoes to symbolize their personal mortification (Lamm 2000:116). Friends and relatives came to join the bereaved in their daily prayer, providing companionship and loving concern. I remember this period, so different from my mother's lonely and unattended Shiva, as a happy time when the family was still united. [End Page 290]

It is not easy to pry into death experience. However, when related to ethnographic studies, it may provide clues to the change from traditional Jewish to secular burial practices that have taken place in the last fifty years in Israel (see also Lamm 2000; Goldberg 1982:124; Meyerhoff 1982:129; Abramovitch 1986; Cytron 1993:113-123).

Anthropology has mainly concentrated on the rituals surrounding death and their relations to unchanging social worlds (Bloch and Perry 1982:36; Taylor 1989:149). Recently, however, a new approach, which focuses on complementary theoretical perspectives, has been taken up (Dubisch 1989:189). This focus includes, first, the emotional experience of death (Taylor 1989:149; Cowell 1986:69-70; Durham 2002:147), which takes into account the diverse human reactions to the deep power and resonance of the experience of death. Contrary to the unchangeable social worlds conceived in long-standing attitudes toward death, this new approach concerns the conflict over meaning and moral authority related to death. This new perspective therefore adds a dynamic view to the anthropological study of death. Second, the new approach includes the material dimension of...


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