By A. JAMES RUDIN
c. 2009 Religion News Service
If respectful treatment of the dead (especially celebrities) is a test of a society's values and mental health, I give the United States failing grades in both categories.
Many Americans have difficulty mourning the massive slaughter of innocents in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Darfur, Cambodia, Rwanda and other killing fields. Yet whenever a celebrity icon dies, a morbid widespread cult of the dead quickly develops, frequently aided and abetted by wall-to-wall media coverage.
Comedians joke that Elvis never really left the building, even though he died in 1977. Unfortunately, it's kind of true. I remember being on a radio talk show in 1997 a few days after Princess Diana died in a car accident, and one tearful listener called in claiming Diana's death was "one of the greatest tragedies in world history; worse than the Holocaust."
Ten years ago, John F. Kennedy, Jr. crashed his plane into the ocean near Martha's Vineyard, killing himself, his wife and sister-in-law. That flight was an act of macho hubris, especially for an inexperienced pilot. Yet instead of talking about responsible adulthood, the buzz was about the "end of Camelot," the "Kennedy curse," and premature death of an American prince.
While the full story of Michael Jackson's death is still unfolding, it is unconscionable that three weeks after his death, the "King of Pop" remains unburied. What's worse, beneath the huge outpouring of public grief lies an orgy of familial and commercial self-promotion, mixed in with the sordid record of medical professionals and other "enablers" of the tormented and talented performer.
Unfortunately, it doesn't end there. Allegations that employees of Burr Oak Cemetery outside Chicago -- where first lady Michelle Obama's father is buried -- dug up and scattered the remains of 300 people in order to sell the newly "vacated" grave sites is one more sign of macabre venality.
None of this, unfortunately, is new in American history.
In 1876, a group of counterfeiters was irate that their engraver was serving to 10 years in jail. In an attempt to spring their colleague loose, the criminals snatched President Lincoln's body from its grave and offered it as ransom for the jailed forger. Of course, the bizarre plot was foiled, but it was not until 1901 -- 36 years after his assassination -- that Lincoln's body was placed in a high-security tomb in Springfield, Ill.
I'm reminded of these excesses as Jews approach Tisha b'Av, which will be celebrated this year on July 30. It is the solemn day of collective mourning to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., and then by the Romans in 70 A.D.
On Tisha b'Av, many synagogues place black curtains on their windows and read Jeremiah's biblical book of Lamentations, which describes the destruction of the first Temple and the people's desolation. It is an annual catharsis -- an opportunity to grieve together over the tragic events of the past. When the sorrowful Tisha b'Av prayers are concluded, one has a strengthened rededication to life.
Judaism teaches utmost respect for the deceased. Because the dead cannot protect their dignity, the living are required to do it for them. That means a speedy burial, in part because a body kept above ground creates enormous emotional strain for mourners. Caskets must be closed at funerals; public viewings are a gruesome custom that dishonors the dignity of the deceased.
Excessive mourning is forbidden because disproportionate, continuous grieving leads to emotional paralysis. There are prescribed periods for bereavement to help us "let go" of our dead: the first seven days after burial are the most intense, then 30 days, followed by 11 months, and finally a yearly remembrance. They're all steps intended to lead from the shadows of loss to the sunlight of life.
In this healing process, mourners recite the Kaddish prayer in memory of the departed. Scholars believe this ancient affirmation of God, which has no mention of death or dying, directly influenced the wording of the Christian "Lord's Prayer."
The Kaddish is a mystical bridge linking the living with the dead, and it's the kind of bridge our society desperately needs.
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of "The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of Us.")