Jewish Death Rituals: the House of the Rounds

As my twin sister will attest, since an early age I have had an extreme fear of dead bodies. Once I was asked to be part of the women's Chevra Kaddisha (Jewish burial society) in Portland, and although I was (briefly) tempted, I had to decline, as I knew I would never sleep again. I am not sure why this is. When I say I am afraid of "dead bodies," I mean dead people. Although I like live animals much better, I am not completely freaked out by dead animals: when I worked as a veterinarian's assistant, I had to deal with dead pets all the time. Sure I cried a lot, but once when asked to do so, I had to lump it and wash and prepare a dead schnauzer for an open casket funeral. It made me sad (and I felt like I needed to be paid more), but I went home, tucked myself into bed, and slept just fine. Dead people, however, are something else. I don't even like to work in cemeteries with recent burials, which for some reason I find more "creepy." Conveniently my research is mainly before the civil war, so I can usually avoid this problem. Jewish mysticism would say I am right to be wary of recent graves: according to Kabblah, there are at least three parts of the soul (nefesh, ruach, and neshama). After death these three parts of the soul suffer different fates, and the nefesh remains in the grave with the body until the body turns to dust. While in the grave, the nefesh undergoes the “pangs of the grave” (hibbut ha-kever). This means as well as being ritually impure, Jewish cemeteries are unhappy places.

Research interests aside, my fear of dead bodies is unfortunate, as one of the most important duties in Jewish life is to take care of the dead and prepare them for burial. Judaism has many rituals to help transition the body and soul of the deceased. In the Jewish Atlantic World one of the important places where these rituals took place was the "House of the Rounds" (Casa de Rodeos or Rodeamentos). This building served the same purpose as the tahara house in Ashkenazi cemeteries: it is where the ritual washing of the body occurred. A good depiction of this washing ritual was memorialized by the Prague Burial Society, which commissioned a series of paintings that depicted the various rituals performed by the Chevra Kaddisha (burial society) from sickbed to burial. In the Spanish-Portuguese rite, the eighteen members of the burial society also made seven circuits (hakafot) around the coffin.

“The Seven Circuits,” Bernard Picart (1673-1733), c. Royal Library of the Hague

Picart's eighteenth-century drawing depicts one such ceremony in the House of the Rounds in Amsterdam's Beth Haim Ouderkerk. The original seventeenth century tahara house was replaced in 1705 by the current building which still stands and was renovated in 1966 (below). One of the thoughtful features of this house was the wooden extension for Cohenim. Although most Jews could visit the dead after burial, those descended from the priestly family (Cohenim) are not permitted to walk in cemeteries. As Joachim Jacobs notes in his fabulous book Houses of Life, the extension allowed the Cohenim to "follow the hakafot through a window, without being under the same roof as the dead person (69)" Near the house, and right next to the entrance to the cemetery by the canal, is the separate section for the Cohenim that allowed them to see their relatives' graves without entering the cemetery proper.
Exterior of the Beth Haim Ouderkerk House of the Rounds;
the Cohenim's wooden extension (black) is on the left
(Photo L. Leibman)

Interior of the House of the Rounds today with the
Death's head and washing stations shown in Picart's drawing (Photo L. Leibman)

New Cohenim Section near the House of the Rounds,
Beth Haim Ouderkerk (Photo L. Leibman)

Many other cemeteries in the Jewish Atlantic World used a House of the Rounds in the cemeteries. Few remain today, though two exquisite examples occur in Curaçao, one in the older Jewish cemetery (Beit Haim Bleinheim), and one in the newer Jewish cemetery (Beit Haim Berg Altena). Like Amsterdam's Beth Haim Ouderkerk, the older Jewish cemetery in Curaçao paid attention to the special needs of the Cohenim and even built a special house from which they could visit the dead and yet not violate Jewish law. The presence of the House of the Rounds is an important ritual element of the Jewish Atlantic World.
House of the Rounds, Beit Haim Bleinheim, Curaçao (Photo L. Leibman)
House of the Cohenim, Beit Haim Bleinheim, Curaçao (Photo L. Leibman)

House of the Rounds, Beit Haim Berg Altena, Curaçao (Photo L. Leibman)

Image at top of page: Benjamin Senior Godines, “Vanitas Picture: A Memento Mori,” (1681).

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