Explaining Death to Kids

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Is Getting A Tattoo Against Our Religion

To Tattoo Or Not?

By David Techner

I will confess the obvious to you: I am not a Jewish scholar and fully expect that such a title will not be part of my obituary when my time on Earth comes to an end. However, I also confess to a respect for Jewish tradition, which is a part of my soul. This respect comes from the practicality Judaism provides those who choose to live by its principles, because the guidance that has been passed from generation to generation is often rooted in sensible answers to often-complex questions.

In my work with children explaining the death of a loved one, I am fortunate that the Jewish approach is easily understood. Consider the shomer who stays with the body from death to burial, or the religious ritual of washing and dressing the body in a shroud, the burial taking place as quickly as possible, the family and friends participating in the final burial, and the shiva, kaddish and yahrzeit - these all make sense, so much so, to the amazement of many parents, that even their young children can grasp the wisdom we are blessed with.

Which brings me to one of my favorite phone calls in my 40 years as a funeral director.

"David, you have a phone call from a young woman - and I do mean young." I picked up the call and it was from a girl just a few weeks away from her 16th birthday. Two years earlier I had taken her, her siblings and a couple of cousins on a tour of the chapel prior to their great grandmother's funeral.

Now, her parents wished to buy her a meaningful 16th birthday present that wasn't a car and had asked her what she wanted. She told them a tattoo. Predictably, that conversation went the way of so many conversations with our teenagers, starting with the emphatic, "No!"... "Why not?"... "Because I said so..." "I think I'm entitled to a reason." You can imagine the rest. Then the famous line from her mother, "If you get a tattoo, you can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery."

Our very skeptical, almost-16-year-old refused to believe that and announced she was calling me.

Before I take you to the conversation's conclusion, let me say that nowhere have I ever seen it written - and never has anyone given me a Jewish traditional response - which would prevent someone from being buried in a Jewish cemetery because of a tattoo. I have heard it explained that we should not choose to desecrate our bodies in life or death (hence no embalming, no autopsy unless ordered by law). Arguably a tattoo could be construed as desecrating the body, so it should be avoided.

I asked if this young girl's parents were home. As I suspected, she and her mom were arguing and dad wasn't actually involved in that discussion. I told her I could not guarantee her a tattoo, but she would most likely enjoy the next couple of minutes of conversation. Her mother joined in on the phone call. I inquired where the mother came to understand that a burial in a Jewish cemetery was not forthcoming if someone had a tattoo. She explained she remembers hearing it from her parents while growing up, always took that as the authoritative opinion and carried it to the next generation.

I explained to her that, at a Chevra Kadisha conference in New York, the subject of tattoos and Taharah (the ritual of washing and dressing the body by members of the Chevra Kadisha) came up. The head of this organization, an Orthodox rabbi, explained the concept of Kavod Ha'met, respect to the dead. Each one of us has a Jewish soul and we treat the body with the utmost respect. Everyone receives this reverence and denying one who is Jewish a proper burial goes against everything Judaism teaches us. Do we deny survivors of the Holocaust burial in a Jewish cemetery because of the numbers on their arms? How about veterans of the Navy who have been tattooed with the naval symbol to signify solidarity with their squad? Do we deny them burial in a Jewish cemetery? The answer is quite clear.

Mom was a little shaken, for she had put all of her eggs in the basket by using the denial of a Jewish burial as her argument against the tattoo. I offered this young girl an opportunity to call my daughter, then living in Olympia, Washington. My daughter had told me, if she had it to do over again, she would have never decided to get that tattoo a long time ago while on a trip to Mexico. She had really wanted it at the time, but now regretted it. My caller didn't contact my daughter, however.

Three weeks after our conversation, I received a text message from the now-16-year-old, showing a photo of a tattoo below an ankle and consisting of a heart with an arrow through it and the word "LIFE" on it. The picture was followed by a message, "Thank you, you're awesome."

I hope she truly does love life and lives it to the fullest, with the knowledge that upon its end, burial in a Jewish cemetery awaits her.