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Whether a body is cremated or buried in the usual fashion, Ari Porat of Kavod Aharon ("Last Honors") offers the families of the deceased designer funerals.
Recently he assisted an Orthodox family in the burial of the ashes of one of their non-Orthodox family members who had been cremated in the United States.
"The family wanted to bury him in Jerusalem," says Porat, "so I made arrangements with a rabbi to give him a religious service, and then we buried him on a kibbutz."
Porat, a long-time documentary filmmaker, has adapted the "part psychologist" he once employed in understanding the motivation of his subjects, to his present profession.
"What I design," says Porat, "is a way of understanding what the family (or the deceased if he speaks to them before) wants and needs."
He developed the idea of Kavod Aharon because both his parents died within a short time of each other, and their funerals were a shock to him. Hurried, disorganized, and not intimate.
"I wasn't prepared. Most people aren't. I didn't think what I would do at their funeral. My mother was unique," he says, " and yet her funeral was the same as that of any other person." Porat's aim is to help others avoid this disappointment.
If the family wishes, Porat can supply poetry, live music, a photo exhibit, flowers, posters, carafes of water, chairs, a book for the funeral guests to write their thoughts in, or microphones. The range of choice is wide.
"I write up the life, edit it, and put it into a historic context, I want to convey the message that each life was distinct."
A couple of years ago a family hired Porat, telling him only that the deceased liked klezmer music and had asked for his ashes to be scattered in the desert. He arranged for 10 family members to be driven to the desert outside Eilat. Each one was given a vessel to hold, containing a portion of the ashes of their loved one, as they united in saying a last goodbye. Porat, as master of ceremonies, stood in the center, coaching the family to repeat after him: "We are carrying on your name..."
Afterwards Porat directed them to hug each other and left them as he went on to prepare the second part of the ceremony.
"Jeeps took them to a Beduin tent," says Porat. "I was waiting for them with wine and a klezmer orchestra and baked pitas and it was as though they were coming back to real life. When they came out of the jeeps they were so depressed. The musicians felt like therapists."
But Porat adds that he doesn't really like gimmicks. His point is that he feels it is hard to separate from a loved one, and even though the Jewish rituals in death and mourning are correct and necessary, Porat feels they often lack the personal touch, the beauty and the added dignity that he is willing to offer.
Porat charges from NIS 3,500 to NIS 5,000 for his designer funerals, which can include everything from speeches, flowers and bottles of water for each participant to a singer, a stage and a casket, as well as the fees of the hazzan and tips for the hevra kadisha.
Porat's aim is to help mourners make a spiritual separation from the deceased in a proper, respectful way that will not leave them with any regrets. The personalized eulogies that he witnessed in the US, and the fact that people were seated, were especially impressive to him.
Porat also likes the body to be carried in a coffin, feeling it adds dignity to the deceased. Nevertheless, it is against the law for anyone to be actually buried in a coffin in this country. The only exception is for all members of the IDF, in order to eliminate the need to distinguish between intact bodies and the severely wounded.
Yet despite the modern concept of designer funerals that Porat introduced in 2002, he does not believe that cremation will catch on in this country. Porat feels that death and burial are a time when Jews cling to tradition.
"As attractive as cremation might appear to some, or even the eventual idea of an open casket," says Porat, "these are not Jewish things and will not last." He makes reference to a failed attempt made by the kibbutzim to re-invent the Pessah seder.
"Some things are just in our cultures, in our tradition, and others are not," says Porat.
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