On Thursday evening, May 27, 2010, as we headed toward Memorial Day weekend, the Hevra Kadisha held an event that was a departure from the meetings we ordinarily convene. Instead of the usual training sessions, educational classes, or recruitment efforts, we met on this stormy evening in the sanctuary to view a film. But not just any film. About 50 members gathered for a screening of an award-winning Japanese film called “Departures,” the 2009 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.
Chosen for its appropriate themes, the film portrays the reverence, dignity, empathy, and compassion of “encoffinment”—a Japanese ritual remarkably similar to our tahara. The story tells of a young musician, Daigo, whose career as a cellist ends when his struggling orchestra is forced to dissolve. In his search for new work upon leaving Tokyo and returning to his village, he unwittingly answers an ad for a job assisting in the ceremony of preparing the deceased (in front of the mourners) for placement in the coffin. Facing his own personal struggles as well as the disapproving reactions of his wife and friends, Daigo travels a journey of selfrevelation as he sees the physical transformation of the deceased and the emotional transformations of the mourners—and eventually himself—through this dignified ritual. In the process, Daigo comes to terms with his own unresolved conflicts surrounding loss and emerges with a new perception of the meanings of living and passing.
Experiencing this beautiful, sensitive film, we were all overcome with floods of deep, multilayered emotions. We identified with the universal themes of our common traditions while we noted some of the distinctions. Through the beauty of the mountainous, wintry scenery, the gentle humor, the haunting score, and the powerful emotions, we processed the issues surrounding death and mourning that are at the very essence of our work with the Hevra Kadisha. After a group discussion of the meanings the film had for each of us, we left with a new, energized appreciation for the blessed opportunity we are given to do our work.