Death is only the beginning: Following the corpse in Israeli Jewish body-handling practices

Principal Investigator:  Prof. Haim Hazan

Post-doctorate fellow: Dr. Sky Gross


Dying is not just about the end of life. It is also about becoming a corpse. The dead body represents a blend of sanctity and impurity, of awe and disgust, of materiality and spirituality: the epitome of materialized taboo. As such, it is an exceptional cultural focal point. Indeed, much has been said on the rituals associated with the final disposal of the body. In both classical and more recent literature, these public stagings of finality have been described in terms of the social and psychological they may serve, and in anthropological terms, of the handling of liminality and taboo as cultural elements within a particular group. In the center is the narrative of the dead-persons' last journey into eternal rest, where the physical remains are either transformed into, or imbued with, the status of a "memory", a "clean", pure, non-embodied, often idealized, representation of the individual as she was as a living person. In general, the decaying body (and perhaps to a less extent, the "cremains", or ashes) serves no representational purpose: the person will live on as a live-like image, simply frozen in time. The body itself, needless to say, is anything but a static object: it bloats, it releases gases and fluids, it rigidifies and relaxes, it changes color. Still, once the funeral has been performed, the person keeps "living on" anywhere but in the rotting flesh. Life continues everywhere but in the corpse. The body itself has been put into order. The curtains close and the audience is invited to leave.


While this finale is often most impressive, the disposal of the body is often but the final scene of a long and elaborate play. Indeed, if we consider classical scenarios of modern death, it becomes clear that several acts precede this proverbial closing of the curtains. The first part of designating death has just ended. As far as the family is concerned, the second part will begin with the funeral. There seems to be no need, want, or request to follow their loved one as she is prepared for the final disposal. The professional is called in, the hospital curtains are shut, and the gurney wheels the body through the backdoor. The body reappears only when the last parting is made public. We would like to pay attention to what seems like a leap in time and space: from the moment the body disappears into the arms of the professionals, until it reappears into the public sphere in a ready-to-dispose-of fashion. In this temporal and spatial wormhole, the body transitions from the order of the living person, to the order of the disposable corpse. The disordered body fades away from the loved ones into a kingdom where taboo and impurity is managed and brought into order.


The undertakers, whom we will refer to as "body-workers" take the corpse from the public gaze, and silently, invisibly, orders it back for this gaze. Loyal to rules of liminal spaces, the persons dealing with the corpse adopt a liminal identity of their own. The body-washers, carriers, and embalmers are either invisible, ghostlike, or, when represented in popular culture, zombie-like, pale, solemn, endowed the image of the dead person, the very object of their craft. These characteristics are shared by two different forms of body handling and disposal: the traditional American funeral and body-viewing on the one hand; and the Jewish funeral as practiced in Israel on the other. Yet, while these and many other similarities may be noted, there are distinctions much worthy of further study.


The research we are undertaking focuses on this window of time and space where the body is handled, out-of-sight of the expected audience: i.e., the close ones. Jewish customs as practiced in Israel present an interesting case where several fundamental issues may be explored. These include the concept of respecting and honoring the dead body; the relations between the dead person, the corpse, and the body-worker; backstage-front stage elements of body disposal, and more. We study the practices and experiences of these invisible persons in the invisible spaces where the body disappears only to reappear as an ordered ready-to-be-disposed-of manner. This understanding is to be contrasted with alternative forms of body handling, most particularly with the popular American funeral, where religion is not as conspicuous in the backstage preparation of the body.


The research is based on interviewing body-workers, to complement texts on Halakha with reports of actual practices. Most importantly perhaps, these interviews produce first-person accounts of the phenomenological and micro-relational dimensions of body handling.


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