Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim Leviticus 16:1-20:27
“Would you like to identify the body?”
The question struck me as more than strange. I was a new young rabbi, but knowledgeable enough about Jewish death and burial customs to wonder why a funeral director at a reputable Jewish funeral home in the New York metropolitan area would ask such
a question. The mitzvah of Kibud HaMet, “Honoring the Dead,” might otherwise discourage such a viewing. Moreover, why should an element of questioning trust between mourners and mortuary be thrust into such a heart-rending moment?
But the question had not been asked of me. It had been asked of my mother about her mother who had just died of a stroke at the age of 86, as my mother would die of a stroke 25 years later at the age of 88.
My mother turned to me and asked if I would identify the body. Which mitzvah is greater? Kibud HaMet, “Honoring the Dead,” or Kibud Av v’Em, “Honoring Father,” and in this case in particular, “Mother”? This was not the moment for me to weigh the nuances of such halachic questions. I simply opted for greater consideration for the living above the dead.
I followed the funeral director down a narrow flight of steps — descent into another world — and entered a large, laboratory-looking room starkly lit by florescent lights. The room’s centerpiece was a stainless steel surgical table. Upon it lay a body covered by a sheet. An old woman sat at the head of the table, her gaze glued upon a Book of Psalms, her lips silently mouthing the words to protect the dead body and elevate its soul.
The funeral director lowered the sheet to uncover my grandmother’s head. My grandmother had been a beautiful woman in her youth and fastidious in her appearance throughout her life, but death had drained all the beauty from her face. My grandmother would not have wanted me to see her in such a state. A different kind of beauty then became self-evident: the wisdom and humanity of the mitzvah of Kibud HaMet. Indeed, I shouldn’t see my grandmother in such a state. Instinctively I reached my hand toward her head to stoke her hair as a gesture of unconditional love that supersedes such transient qualities as physical beauty. I wanted to comfort my grandmother.
But I couldn’t touch her. I was intimidated by the Shomeret, the little old lady seated at the head of the table. She never looked up from the Book of Psalms. She didn’t have to. Her simple presence was enough to protect my grandmother from indignities far worse than the comforting touch of a grandson. Such is the tenderness, the realism and the power of this mitzvah of Kibud HaMet.
We need not delve deeper into our double Torah portion this Shabbat, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, than the title itself to find a profound lesson. Acharei Mot-Kedoshim means, “After Death — Holiness.” My grandmother, in death, was holy. I, in life, was holy. Each of us was holy but in profoundly different ways. And it is the intersection of life and death that must be observed with consummate dignity, protection, comfort and holiness.
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.