Although he's at the prime of his life, lately Jonathon Fine has been thinking of death and dying -- and doing it Jewishly.
"I feel passionate about it," Fine, 33, says of his commitment to Jewish rituals around death and burial practices. "I think it is important it be offered and be an option."
In a few months, Fine and other members of Temple Shalom, a Reform Jewish synagogue, will be able take advantage of the full range of Jewish rituals around death and burial for their dearly departed loved ones.
Temple Shalom holds a seminar on Jewish burial practices at 2:30 p.m. today at Chapel Lawn Memorial Gardens, 4000 Portage Ave.
Being buried according to traditional Jewish laws and customs is an extension of Jewish faith and life, explains Rabbi Karen Soria of Temple Shalom.
"For the Jewish community, Jewish burial is in fact an affirmation of community," she says. "It isn't only a matter of living as a Jew as part of the community, it is in fact remaining part of the community in death and after death."
Right now, any Jew using one of the city's four kosher cemeteries is prepared for burial according to Orthodox standards at Chesed Shel Emes, a non-profit Jewish burial society founded in 1930. But any Jew buried at a public cemetery, including Temple's Shalom's section of Chapel Lawn, must go to another funeral home, says the society's executive director.
"Their cemetery does not meet Orthodox (Jewish) requirements," explains Rena Boroditsky. "One of the Orthodox requirements for a kosher cemetery is it has to be owned by Jews and it has to be enclosed by a fence and that Jews and non-Jews are not buried together."
It's a political decision, not religious, to exclude Temple Shalom members planning to be buried at Chapel Lawn from the society's services, suggests Ruth Livingston, president of the synagogue.
"Our cemetery was not considered sufficiently kosher by some on the Chesed board," she says.
Boroditsky says the society is only following its constitution and is committed to Jewish rituals and laws.
"I'm sure there are some who believe that because we're a community organization, we should prepare anyone," she says. "Why would you do ritual preparation for someone who is going to a non-kosher cemetery or is going to be cremated?"
For the past decade, Temple Shalom has had a dedicated section at Chapel Lawn's cemetery to allow for burial of cremated remains and joint plots for interfaith couples, says Livingston, giving everyone associated with the synagogue the opportunity for a Jewish burial.
"If they wanted to be buried Jewishly, they couldn't be buried with their spouse," she says, referring to the requirements of other Jewish cemeteries. "We just felt it wasn't acceptable."
But until now, bodies could not be prepared according to Jewish rituals at Chapel Lawn, a situation that will change soon since Temple Shalom now has access to a room for burial preparation.
Livingston says the synagogue is also training volunteers to wash and dress the body, and recruiting a pool of people to serve as pallbearers. Temple Shalom has also consulted with Boroditsky on ritual practices and where to obtain supplies, she says.
Having access to burial and funeral services through his home congregation is important for Fine, now training to be one of the volunteers who will prepare bodies for burial.
"It's traditional, it's part of the religion, it's custom and it's very important and part of the Jewish law," he says.
The health-care professional says it may be unusual for someone his age to be interested in death rituals, but his youth is an advantage when it comes to preparing bodies.
"The process, aside from the spiritual aspect, is physically challenging," says Fine.
A green funeral
WHILE the rest of the world discusses the merits of environmentally-friendly funerals and burials, Jewish practices have been green all along, says the executive director of Winnipeg's non-profit Jewish burial society.
"Jews had the first green burial," says Rena Boroditsky of Chesed Shel Emes.
"There's no embalming, it's a very simple burial and everything decomposes."
All Jews who are buried in one of the city's four kosher cemeteries are laid to rest exactly the same way, says Boroditsky, whose Main Street organization deals with about 200 deaths a year.
She says bodies are prepared and buried according to Orthodox standards, although only about 10 per cent of the people served are Orthodox. The society's board has representatives from each of the city's Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues.
After a death, trained volunteers wash the body in a ritual way, saying prayers at each step and then dress it in a simple cotton shroud. The body is placed in a plain grey casket with rope handles, following Jewish custom that no metal be buried. Four holes on the bottom of the casket ensure contact with the earth.
Fees are kept low, with preparation, shroud and casket costing $1,775. A cemetery plot, grave digging and closing, the hearse, and services of the rabbi cost an additional $10,000, says Boroditsky.
This simple casket and funeral demonstrates that all people, whether rich or poor, have the same value, says Rabbi Karen Soria of Temple Shalom.
"The idea is we are all equal in death," she says. " The simplest way is in fact the most respectful way."
She says people buried at Temple Shalom's plot at Chapel Lawn will have the same type of plain cotton shroud and simple casket. Costs are slightly higher there, with fees for body preparation, shroud and caskets running about $3,000.
-- Source: chesedshelemes.org