Why join a Chevrah? Why now? This essay seeks to address these questions from two angles, one global and one personal, as well as to explore the intersection of the two.
First the personal. My father died in 1999, my mother in 2012. In both cases I felt compelled to find ritual means that would allow me to honor their individuality and the specificity of my connection to them. The idea of handing things over to “professionals”, whether a funeral home or the clergy, felt like a kind of betrayal. Since both deaths occurred prior to my conversion to Judaism, I had no access to the rituals that I now seek to promote, and I felt no real connection to Presbyterian death practice (to the extent that I could determine if there was such a thing).
Overall, I feel I succeeded in my efforts, my mom receiving the second line procession, brass instruments in the lead, that her love of celebration seemed to call for, while my dad was remembered with the Bartok and poetry that he loved. No doubt much of this drive came from my experience as an artist, the same drive that led me to make my own huppah, and that led my wife, also an artist, to customize her wedding dress . But it was also part of a larger context, one that continues to find expression in the present.
That context can be broadly termed Do it Yourself (DIY) culture. In many times and places, DIY is just part of the fabric of everyday life. It doesn’t need a name because it’s taken for granted. This is certainly true of the origins of taharah and the whole range of Jewish end of life practices. But perhaps broadly speaking, the trend in Western societies has been away from the personal towards the institutional; away from intimate experience and towards alienation in its literal sense.
At least since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have idealized the move away from the hands-on as a form of liberation, and of course in some ways that’s been true (who among us would truly wish to return to the harsh realities of pre-industrial, agrarian society?). But as we outsource our experience; as the machinery that governs our daily lives becomes less and less accessible to us, we also see our autonomy being whittled away.
This ceding of control in the interest of notions of freedom and leisure reached new heights in the post-war America of fast food, self-cleaning ovens and the rise of the military-industrial complex. Ultimately, however, the emptiness left in progress’ wake helped jump-start the countercultural movements of the 60’s, including the rise of DIY. Of course, the 60’s were many things, from Vietnam to Civil Rights; from Woodstock to Altamont. But underneath it all, I think was an attempt on the part of the public to reclaim control of their political and social realities. Many of these avenues of DIY “resistance” are with us in one form or another today, the children of “Steal This Book” and “The Whole Earth Catalog”.
Paralleling these developments in the wider culture was the movement to revitalize the Chevrah and to wrest ownership of our own deaths away from the control of the funeral industry. Gaining steam in the 60’s through the efforts of people like Rabbis Sidney Applbaum and Samuel Dresner, as well as through the publication of books like Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death” and Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning”, this movement found full expression in the 70’s, signaled by, among other things, the publication of Rabbi Arnold Goodman’s “A Plain Pine Box”.
But back to the personal. I was a teenager in the mid-70’s to early 80’s. As I began to find my way out of my childhood world, I became increasingly aware of the surge in DIY culture around me. My primary point of entry was through music, particularly through Punk and experimental music of various kinds. The linking factor in all of these musics was a rejection of the established means of production and distribution, as well as a contempt for the “corporate” products of the mainstream music industry (ok, I’ve learned to appreciate Led Zeppelin, but in those days they were the antithesis of the DIY ethos and therefore the enemy).
DIY was also in the air in the “‘zine” culture of self-publishing; in underground comics; in homemade (and home-altered) clothing. And in 1980, when I enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, DIY was also there in education: conventional majors were frowned on in favor of hybrid degrees in, say, Biology-Religion or Physics-Art. And, of course, my subsequent time in art school led me even further down the path. All of which is to say that the DIY sensibility was very much part of my environment as I set about figuring out who I was, and it has inevitably colored how I see the world and what I seek from it.
So why “Analog Practice in a Digital World”? I originally began thinking about this during Course 1B (“Origins and Evolution”). The question was, “what gives you hope in moving the Chevrah forward?”. For me, given my predisposition towards DIY and music, the answer seemed somehow related to the reasons why, suddenly, vinyl records have become popular again, perhaps even threatening to outlast cds. This may seem like a trivial, boutique consumer fad, but I think the roots go deeper.
Just as the Industrial Revolution eventually led to a sense of alienation from one’s own experience, so too has the Information Revolution. As our lives are increasingly lived on our phones, people are beginning to seek ways of reconnecting with physical experience. A vinyl record is not just a consumer choice: it forces you to interact with the physical production of sound via a needle in a groove; it is less conducive to casual, distracted listening as you have to be there when the side ends and it’s time to flip it over. I offer you this as a metaphor for trends I see in the culture at large.
Some of these trends are outgrowths of the 60’s counterculture: the rise of community supported agriculture for example. Similarly, I know more and more people who are taking up beekeeping and chicken-raising, as well as people making or repurposing their own clothes, or choosing to swap with others rather than buy new. Sure, none of this is threatening the hegemony of Amazon (yet), but it’s in the air.
Politically, recent years have seen the rise of the Occupy, Me Too and March for Our Lives movements as well as the evolving environmental movement typified by groups like the Yippie inspired Extinction Rebellion and Generation Z figures like Greta Thunberg. And who could have imagined even twenty years ago the rise of avowed Socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
Another direct outgrowth of DIY is Maker culture. Primarily concerned with demystifying technology and taking production out of the hands of tech giants (for example, guiding people through the process of creating their own 3-D printers), Maker culture is a more hands-on, physical outgrowth of hacker culture. Disseminating information and practical advice through publications like Make magazine, as well as through gatherings called Maker Faires, Maker culture seeks to empower people without being in denial about our technological realities. Many schools now have “Maker” rooms to re-engage kids with the physical and counter the passive consumption encouraged by online living.
What does this have to do with the Chevrah? I think that all the above developments have made this an ideal time to spread information about the Chevrah to a wider, younger audience. Taking ownership of death is only a baby-step away from taking ownership of what you eat or how you give birth. The key is finding ways to get the Chevrah to this audience. While this is a work in progress, I would say that one example might involve setting up shop at a Maker Faire: giving workshops on aron construction, tachrichim sewing, mushroom shrouds, even human composting. While specific to the Jewish community, all of these things have applications and implications for a wider demographic. Other venues might include farmers markets; workshops at alternative schools (or mainstream schools if they are receptive); shroud-making circles at local sewing collectives; presentations at local TED/ELI styled gatherings (we periodically have one where I live in Beacon, NY called a Pecha Kucha).
One of the reasons given for the return to vinyl records, tube amps and analog synthesizers is that there is a warmth to their sound that is missing in their digital counterparts. By bringing its profound warmth to the subject of death, I believe the Chevrah is perfectly attuned to this moment.
Matt Harle is an artist, musician, and aspiring chaver. He is a student of the Gamliel Institute, making his way through the core curriculum. He lives and works in the Hudson Valley in Beacon New York. This is his third blog for Expired And Inspired, and we look forward to more.