One of the most prevalent myths about Jewish death pertains to tattoos: should you have them, you can’t have a Jewish funeral or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This is simply not true. Indeed, this is the single most frequent tweet I make as a response for Kavod v’Nichum. Ironically, I’m Modern Orthodox, covered in tattoos, and a member of a Frum (observant) Chevrah Kadisha Taharah (ritual purification) team.
Inspired by the popular movie, Eastern Promises, I set about studying Soviet criminal tattoos some years back, and became familiar with some of their basic themes; they are really code for others who can translate them to understand what/who someone is, their crimes, their joys, etc. It’s really an ongoing roadmap about their life. That all proved useful, as one of the most memorable Taharot (plural of Taharah)I participated in involved an older Russian man who was covered in tattoos.
Taharot for our team can feel routine, as we do several a week. Since this man died from natural causes, nothing that might surprise us was expected. As the man lay on the Taharah table, one could plainly see he was covered in tattoos, which I immediately recognized as Russian from my earlier study. The other team members stared for a moment in surprise, but quickly moved back to the routine of Taharah.
Meanwhile, whatever role(s) I normally play were set aside as I had my first chance to ever examine actual Russian tattoos. Our Taharah Rosh/leader was a bit impatient, so I tried my best to make mental notes while working, although at slower than normal pace, trying to take in as much information as possible.
After the Taharah was completed, I was able to tell our team that this man had been an officer in the Soviet Army; he had liberated one of the camps, and no doubt saved the lives of many Jews. Later in life he had turned to some forms of petty crime and spent over five years in prison. He loved his two children, who had also followed in his criminal footsteps. He had killed several men, but I was unable to ascertain if this was from wartime or afterwards.
In sum, although he was covered with tattoos and had a criminal background, this man was given a full Taharah, Jewish funeral, and Jewish burial, which the team attended. The entire service was in Russian, so I felt especially fortunate to be able to tell his story to my team members. To them, he was just another deceased man. To me he became a fascinating link to the stories tattoos can tell and the knowledge I had garnered from them about this man’s life.
Kerry Swartz is a member of the Community Chevra Kadisha in Vancouver and Victoria BC. He is a professionally trained photographer holding an MFA from Concordia University in Montreal. He is a student of the Gamliel Institute, and serves as a board member and contributes to social media, fundraising and grant writing for Kavod v’Nichum. Kerry is happily married with two teenagers who think his library is gross.