After Tragedy In Pittsburgh, An Extraordinary Effort To Honor ‘The Holy Ones’

The final burial took place Friday for the last of the 11 people killed by a gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue one week ago.

For Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, it was a week unlike any other.

Wasserman is a member of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox chevra kadisha, as a Jewish burial society is known. According to Jewish custom, a body is not supposed to be left alone from the time of death until the time of burial, and all remains must be buried with the body.

But in the wake of last week’s attack and the investigation that has followed, the chevra kadisha had to find a way to follow tradition even as they operated in a crime scene.

“The FBI has been trying to balance their obvious need to collect evidence and map the crime scene and process it in a manner that will be able to be brought to the legal proceedings,” Wasserman told NPR’s Scott Simon in an interview recorded before the sabbath.

The rabbi said federal investigators were flexible in accommodating the burial preparations and were able to allow burial society members to access the synagogue on Tuesday.

Wasserman, the head rabbi at the Shaare Torah synagogue, a neighboring Squirrel Hill congregation in Pittsburgh, said standard criminal procedures left him and his fellow faith leaders feeling “anxious.”

Honoring observant Jews who have died comes with many hurdles. “As one can imagine — and I’m certainly not going to get graphic in this context — um, there’s a lot of blood everywhere,” he said.

During the ritual, which has roots going back to biblical times, preparations involve the cleansing and dressing of the body, and prayers, all in a specific order.

“In Hebrew we call them kedoshim, the holy ones, because they were killed solely and only because they were Jewish,” said Wasserman. “Each of those people, to the murderer, represented the entirety of the Jewish people.”

Malke Frank of Pittsburgh’s New Community chevra kadisha told The New York Times that those who conduct the ritual, “begin by saying a prayer for guidance, followed by asking for forgiveness in case any mistakes are made during the ritual, using the person’s Hebrew or Yiddish name to address the body, as a sign of respect.”

Before entering the Tree of Life synagogue on Tuesday, Wasserman told The New York Times, “We would be looking for any flesh, any blood, any organic material to give it the proper honor with the bodies.”

After the washing is complete, the group ends “with a phrase from the Song of Songs, a poem from the Jewish bible: ‘You are beautiful my beloved friend and there is no flaw in you,’ ” according to the Times.

In his interview with NPR, Wasserman said he hasn’t allowed himself to cry, “Because if I do, I will fall apart,” he said, choking up as he spoke.

“As the days go by, it’s getting harder and harder for me to push those tears back. So I’m going to probably need a corner soon just to fall apart in.”

Reflecting on what it will mean when services eventually resume at Tree of Life, Wasserman recalled the national conversation about what to do with the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I remember when the discussions of Ground Zero came up and discussions of what to do and what not to do in its hallowed space,” he said. “I imagine they will resolve to honor their memory by continuing to make it a place of holiness, a place of peace, a place of love and a place of prayer.”

NPR’s Wynne Davis contributed to this report. Sophia Boyd and Joanne Levine produced and edited the audio version of this story.

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