What I’m Reading: Dealing with Death, Catholic Hospitals, and Autism

Siddharta Mukherjee wrote a column for the New York Times Magazine about his experience watching funeral pyres in India as a boy, his experience as an oncologist watching Americans die of cancer, and the problems with the American way of death. The contrast between a body in flames as it passes from this life and a body in a dress and lipstick on display in a funeral parlor makes for an essay worth reading: “The Letting Go.”

Also from the New York Times, Kevin Slack reports about “Nuns, a ‘Dying Breed’ Fade From Leadership Roles at Catholic Hospitals.”

And I wish I could send you to the full TIME article about “Autism’s Lone Wolf,” which offers Simon Baron-Cohen’s hypothesis that the increased rate of Asberger’s and autism has to do with like-minded (like-brained, to be more specific) people pairing up and having kids.

About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


  1. Merle Kharasch Gross says:

    Please take note: Jewish burial traditions have NOT gone by the wayside…the movement is growing. This summer, Chicago hosted a 3 day national conference of Jewish Cemetery Associations and Chevra Kadisha. Kavod v’Nichum, which means “honor and comfort,” was founded by David Zinner of Washington, D.C. and he should be given the lion’s share of credit for rekindling interest, disseminating information and creating training sessions and course work in this area. In 2007, Anshe Emet, the Chicago synagogue to which I belong. reclaimed an old Jewish tradition by establishing a Chevra Kadisha, a burial society wherein community members perform the required ritual preparations for burial of a Jewish person.

    We are volunteers with some training, a few of us have medical expertise but that is not requisite. During a Tahara, time seems to stands still—there are no phone distractions, we speak but there is no “chatter,” we are intensely focused, yet relaxed, and every participant is seamlessly integrated into the team. There is nothing creepy though I think everyone had initial concerns.

    I refer to myself as a “Grateful Washer of the Dead” and everybody knows I say it with utmost respect and gratitude for the privilege of serving and participating in this ritual. Dressing a freshly-washed metah in loose muslin garments, fixing the ties and knots in the prescribed manner, saying the few required prayers and also adding my own soft goodbyes—I feel newly connected to women I might not have met but for my participation in the Chevra Kadisha and I feel newly connected to those individuals with whom no new relationship is possible. There is no information which can be exchanged, I will never hear the voices of the many women I have served at this special “after-time” when five or six of us gather to act as hand-maidens to the dead. We tend to our work carefully and appear to be helping someone prepare for a special event, not powdered and lipsticked, but newly clean and combed and patted dry. We follow the ritual requirements, which are surprisingly few, and each Chevra Kadisha group has great latitude in decision-making with regard to spoken and procedural content–each group is said to develop its own “minhag”–or particular set of customs.

    I feel confident that our community Chevra Kadisha will outlast me and be here FOR me. I won’t be aware, but I know the women who will serve will be much like the women of today and I will be well-delivered. I never thought or cared much about what would happen to my body after I died—but, having served in the Chevra Kadisha, I find now that I DO, indeed, care. We are available to and already engaged in helping other congregations establish their own Chevras as well.

    David Zinner and/or Rabbi Stuart Kelman of the Gamliel Institute are better than founts of information on the subject. They are critically important resources and, far better than I, they can provide the facts and figures on this growing and important movement of “Respect for the Dead and Comfort for the Mourners.”

    Merle Kharasch Gross
    Chicago, Illinois

  2. Audrey Smith says:

    The Indian rituals at the Ghats are moving in the same way as Jewish burial traditions. They both involve the participation of the living with the dead in an eternal cycle. Audrey Smith