Today is January 18, 2018 -
Jewish practice is to bury our dead quickly, accepting the reality of death and to treat all who die with dignity. We read in the Torah this week, after the death of Jacob in Egypt, that his son Joseph followed a different pattern. “Then Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel.” (Genesis 50:2-3) This is the exception to our rule of not embalming the dead. Embalming, making the body look like it is still alive, is contrary to our emphasis on accepting the reality and the finality of death. The embalming process also includes intrusive acts, such as cutting into the body, that we consider disrespectful to the deceased. After our sojourn in Egypt we followed different rites for burying the dead. In addition here is a comment that sees another distinction between our tradition and the practices of ancient Egypt.”In Egypt,…the dead are embalmed, mummified and placed in a coffin or sarcophagus to be preserved. As illustrated by the Hebrew word for Egypt (Mitzrayim), which is connected to the root word tzar, meaning narrow, Egypt was a society of narrowness, of restriction and oppression, of slavery, death and abuse. So too, Egypt’s burial practice was one of restriction, sealing off, preservation and narrowness. In contrast, in a Jewish burial, the body must be free to return to the ground…[in Israel today] wrapped only in a simple white shroud.” (Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels whoteaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.) How we bury the dead is a reflection of our values. Our traditions emphasize that death is real, that we treat the bodies of those we bury with respect, allowing them to be put to rest in a simple natural way.