The last days of the Pope contrasted with the circus surrounding the tragic end of Terri Schiavo. The Pope, who had made so many more meaningful, dramatic gestures in his lifetime, made an important one in his death as well. It was hard to miss both the dignity and the love of life inherent in his determination to bear the pain of infirmity, and in the extent of medical attention lovingly offered him.
So far, many of us are on more or less the same page as the Vatican leadership. We part company sharply in the treatment of the Pope after death.
It is not legitimate, except in matters of compelling moral and ethical argument, to pass judgment on other cultures. Some things are not right or wrong, just different. I would have attributed the pomp and ceremony with which the Vatican is treating the remains of the Pope to just that – cultural difference. We Jews do things so completely differently. Perhaps we just don’t get it. (Few of us would argue for the wholesale burning of a great leader’s personal effects, yet our Gemara does not take the position that this practice of the non-Jews of its day was ludicrous.)
The more I saw, the more uncomfortable I got, however. Moreover, I overheard non-Jews, Catholics, making the same comments! My humble housekeeper expressed her displeasure. So is it just cultural, or does the sharp divide in the way we treat human remains (despite the commonly held beliefs in both the afterlife and the value of the body as a tool in performing righteous acts) tell us something fundamental about differences in the way we view life and death?
Our way has been part of the fabric of Jewish life for quite some time. We haven’t considered alternatives for many, many centuries. Before the standardization of funeral practices by R Yochanan ben Zakai – to protect the honor of the poor, not for reasons of essential kavod hames – we too dressed the body in finery and had “open caskets.” So why are we left so uncomfortable by all the contrasts? We use a plain pine box, and poke holes in the bottom, to speed disintegration of the body; they use a coffin with three layers to delay it. They lift the carefully preserved body to display it to the waiting crowd; we eschew both the preparation and the display. They prolong the mourning period leading up to interment; we hurry it. They channel emotion into grand and decorous ceremony; we encourage tearful abandon on the eulogizer and his audience.
The contrast hit home the most in a Reuters dispatch on the behavior of the crowds that came to pay their last respects:
Packed like sardines in a tin, bodies lay as far as the eye could see, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags, some covered in national flags. Some people dozed while others prayed, played guitars, sang religious songs or munched on sandwiches…A group of boisterous Argentine priests belted out a famous eastern European tune in honor of a passing group of Poles, before switching to “Cielito Lindo” when they spotted a Mexican flag go by…[The] buoyant mood [of someone who got in to see the Pope’s remains] was in stark contrast to the disappointment felt by Cecilia Khoo, 40, who flew from Singapore for a chance to lay eyes on the Pontiff. She arrived just as police were cordoning off all streets leading to St. Peter’s…”I feel very, very sad. I have come so far to pay my last respects to the Pope, but I have been stopped when I am so close,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
Many of us remember levayos/ funerals of our own greats, attended by literally tens or even hundreds of thousands of mourners. Those of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l come to mind. A small number of people got “inside.” The rest never got closer than blocks away, but that made no difference. We all knew that the kavod, the honor we showed was not in viewing or getting close to the remains, but simply showing up. We knew that the neshamah/ soul of the departed was aware of our presence. Even it it wouldn’t, we wanted to be there to say goodbye, to accompany the body on its last journey, and to be uplifted by the words of the speakers who exposed layer after layer of significance in a life lived well.
So I repeat the question. Is it all cultural? Or are there fundamental differences at work?