The Museum of

       rites of passage

From the book "The Polish Jew: His Social and Economic Value," by Beatrice C. Baskerville, 1906.

The dreary Jewish cemetery, with its flat tombstones, is always apart from those belonging to peoples of other faiths. No matter how small or poor it is, it contains a building from which the Polish passer-by turns with disgust and the educated Jew with horror.

When a Jew is sick to death, a Rabbi is called in to give him what comfort be can for his last moments. As soon as the breath is out of his body, the relations do their utmost to have the corpse removed as soon as possible. Russian law says that a body must lie three days' before the coffin is closed; but the Jews take the risk of breaking it, and when a doctor has pronounced life to be extinct, remove it to the cemetery in a closed bier, which looks like a huge box on a platform of black wood. The friends and acquaintances follow it, but only the nearer relations enter the mysterious building. The others wait outside.

In the provincial cemeteries the room into which the corpse is taken is of the simplest description. A large table stands in the middle, supplied with a trough. The body is stripped and placed on it; and, if the deceased was a very pious man, water, the quantity of which is prescribed by the Talmud, is thrown over his remains, whilst his friends say prayers for him. If there are fewer than ten people, the prayers are said to be of no avail, just as an oath witnessed by less than three persons, or one Rabbi, is invalid.

After the water has been poured over the corpse. an india-rubber tube is placed in the mouth, clean water pumped into it and the stomach pressed with wooden instruments like rolling-pins. This and syringes are used until the water which leaves the body is quite clear. Meanwhile, other women are busy sewing linen grave-clothes, which must be made near the corpse. The piece from which they are made cannot be cut. If the deceased were a man and pious, he is also dressed in the shirt worn by him during the great fast--the Day of Judgment. His hair and beard are then combed, his finger and toe nails carefully cleaned, and short sticks placed between his fingers, so that when the last trump calls him from his grave he will have something with which to raise his body. Gloves are then put on, a new earthenware basin broken, and two pieces placed over his eyes, lest he should see what is happening in the grave. After this the body is enveloped in a shroud, made of linen for men and thick tulle for women, taken out into the cemetery and put into the grave. No coffin is used, but if a man is a first-born son, double planks of wood are placed at each of his sides and over him; if not first-born, the planks are single. No wood is put under the body, in order that it may be in direct contact with the earth. A bag of earth is also placed under his head in return for his life-work. The grave is then filled up, and the ceremony completed with prayers.

When a Polish Jew dies abroad and his remains are brought into the country for burial, the coffin is put into the grave without being opened, aa Russian law forbids all coffins coming into the country to be touched. Often the Kahal makes a lot of difficulty about burying people in this way, and the heirs of the deceased have to pay a large fine before the coffin is admitted into the cemetery at all. There is a tradition among the Polish people that in such cases the authorities in the smaller Communes exhume the bodies at night, perform all the ceremonies just described, and replace them coffinless in their graves.  next ►►


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