Friday, 19 August 2011

Sew in love

Those of you who have followed me for a while (gawd love yer) will know I take pleasure from putting needle to thread and 'centering' myself with a spot of sewing, for reasons explained in an earlier post
So when I read this story from across the Pond earlier today, my heart swelled. All these women sewing together, the idea of helping families and playing a role in the life (or, actually, the death) of someone in such a way, the equality in death these garments bring. A wonderful story, a beautiful idea. From what I have read about Jewish customs – in particular surrounding dying/death/funerals/bereavement – I think there is a lot we could learn. Hope you are equally moved by this article from North County Times (

SAN JOSE ---- The handful of sewing machines and bolts of plain white cotton muslin didn't look like much, but at a recent Sunday's Sew What? meeting, they kept alive deeply rooted Jewish customs with a meaning thousands of years old.
Inside a room at the Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, a small group of women sewed all morning and into the afternoon, cutting and stitching pattern after pattern of the same outfit: traditional Jewish burial clothing.
"Everyone, whether rich or poor, is dressed the same this way," said Betty Menkin, the group's founder. The clothes, which include a shirt, pants, a robelike jacket, belt, head covering and burial sheet ---- for both men and women ---- are all made of white fabric and emphasize equality in death.
Menkin was inspired to create the sewing group in 2004 after hearing about similar ones at a national Jewish conference. The draw for the participants, she said, is being able to contribute something, even peripherally, to ease the transition for the deceased's relatives.
"We sew these garments, and we hope they'll never have to be used," Menkin said. "But when the time comes, we've lent a helping hand to the family. Every person who helped sew the clothing has touched the process."
Traditional Jewish burial also involves a washing and dressing of the body and a vigil until burial. The prescribed plain clothes, simple casket and graveside ceremony are meant to keep the funeral humble, and each step of the burial is clearly delineated in Jewish tradition ---- something that the bereaved family finds helpful.
"People in general have dealt with deaths of family members for eons," Menkin said. "Judaism developed a set of rules about how to proceed, and it's comforting to have a guidebook, a recipe. It gives structure when you're grieving, especially if it's the first time."
Currently, about eight or 10 of Beth David's congregants undergo traditional burial each year, but the number may grow, said Beth David's Rabbi Philip Ohriner.
"As word spreads of more people choosing to do so, the more comfortable others feel in doing the same," he said.
Menkin said the community-based burial traditions ---- including having community members act as shomer, or vigil guards, with the body, and handle burial preparations ---- allow the congregation to re-adopt a role in a practice that is otherwise parceled out to private businesses such as funeral homes.
And the garment sewing, while just one part of the process, can be an important healing step for those who participate, she added.
Menkin recalled that a woman who'd been sewing shirts for the group was called to her father's bedside where he was dying of pancreatic cancer. As she sat with him until his final hours, she finished sewing his shirt by hand and found that the tangible action helped her come to terms with his death.
Another group member, San Jose resident Christel Sanders, said that when her husband died in 2007, she'd also been very comforted to know that details of his burial such as his clothing would be taken care of by those around her.
"I started sewing these because at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do," she said. "But after (my husband's) death, it took on a new meaning."


  1. A lot of instructions to Jews and Muslims regarding diet are well out of date in an age of refrigeration. They are simply bonkers.

    But when it comes to death and disposal the ancient Jewish teachings continue to promote the emotional health of the bereaved in ways which we would do well to emulate. Sitting shiva and the tahara are two other examples.

    This is a LOVELY article, CB. It's all just so RIGHT!

  2. Glad you liked it Charles. The Jewish faith seems to have a strong focus on the seasons of life and life-cycle ritual. This combined, with their tradition of expression, can only be a comfort to them during bereavement, I'd have thought.

  3. Putting the final rite of passage back with the community - beautiful. Harder to do for us secularists?
    Is there a convenient source for reading about the Jewish customs and attitudes towards death rites?
    Thanks - it's as Charles says.

  4. Harder indeed, GM...
    I've got a really good article about Jewish bereavement practices from last April's Bereavement Care Journal. I can copy it and post it to you...