The new 9-ll attack in Libya and its aftermath sickened me with images of the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and reports of the violation of his body, dragged through the streets of Benghazi. Seeing the bloody handprints of Americans on a pillar reminded me of the photo from the 2000 lynching of two IDF reservists in Ramallah, as Aziz Salha waved his blood-drenched hands in triumph after the killings, which also involved the reservists’s bodies being dragged through the streets.

Separated by almost 12 years but united by the barbarism of the perpetrators, these two acts coincide with thoughts I’ve had lately on death, the rituals of mourning and the deep anguish caused when those rituals are violated.

With Yom Kippur passed, with its reflections on life and death, I’m struggling to find a narrative thread connecting horrific media images. They contrast violently with my traditional sense of treating the dead.

As I experience it, Jewish faith creates a framework for mourning and remembrance, going back to Abraham’s purchase of the burial ground at Machpelah for Sarah. Kaddish, shivah, rocks placed tenderly on cemetery headstones, prayers recited for martyrs and others on Yom Kippur – these rituals all have personal meaning to me. In the larger civic sense, the public mourning after the first 9-11 attacks testifies to the value of ritual in response the rupture of life into death. The reverence for bones that are still being uncovered around Ground Zero speaks to the sacredness of remains. Whatever the nature of a passing, a ceremony and words express a basic, primeval human need.

The Benghazi killings fit into an unsettling pattern of the unending violation of this need.

My greater awareness of ritual and violation began this summer when I visited an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, “Written in Bone: Unearthing the 17th Century Chesapeake.” The exhibit involved the forensics of early settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, starting in 1608. Hunger, hard work and disease killed settlers quickly. The exhibit especially gripped me with this discussion:

Formal burials reflect culturally prescribed ways to show respect for the deceased, as well as a means to dispose of the dead.

 

Bones found in even the most unlikely places hold clues. Chesapeake burials sometimes reveal corpses hurriedly placed in shallow pits, with little attention paid to positioning the body. On rare occasions, archaeologists find bones in trash pits, old wells, or cellars.

The frantic burial spoke of a society in crisis, with the living barely able to bury the dead, much less observe rituals. The scattered graves, with visions of sick survivors burying others before they themselves died, was ghastly testimony to a society in collapse.

In times of limited resources and social chaos, the living take precedence. But what about ritualized brutality that upends the rituals of mourning? What does violation of the dead say about the violators, what’s the impact on those left behind?

If the Jamestown settlers couldn’t follow rituals, they at least did not defile the bodies. That urge for ritual desecration, appears as a touchstone of current clash of civilizations, with the destruction of 38,000 Jewish headstoness in pre-1967 East Jerusalem, bodies treated with contempt in the “Black Hawk Down” episode in Somalia, the Ramallah killings, and now the Benghazi massacre. An atavistic urge drives some groups to not just kill, but to treat the dead with such utter lack of respect – to celebrate violation a core value.

Nazis in World War II were the ultimate defilers, even as they observed rituals for themselves. A scene in the movie A Film Unfinished jolted me with these thoughts. The film is a documentary about Nazi movie-making in the Warsaw ghetto, how the Nazis set up and directed scenes. What appeared spontaneous was typically shot multiple times. The scene that especially haunted me showed bodies of starvation victims being placed in a mass grave. Jews picked up bodies in handcarts and wheeled them to a cemetery. I shuddered for the dead and also for the living – five elderly Orthodox men stood over the trench, watching and bearing witness. Were they forced to be there or did they want to stand and say Kaddish, mute sentinels of faith honoring the dead, before they themselves were killed? The film showed them walking away. Where to? What did they think, standing over the pit of bodies layered upon bodies, seeing their own end?

Even as the Jews of Warsaw were murdered, Germans and Russian clashed at Stalingrad. Books and movies about the 1942-1943 battle showed that Germans were fastidious about their own death rituals as they denied them to others – and the Russians were just as eager to deny the Germans those rituals.

The 1973 book Enemy at the Gates by William Craig has a photo that shows a German cemetery, rank upon rank in the snow in the Kessel, or “cauldron,” where Russians trapped the Fifth Army in November 1942. The caption stated:

A German battalion cemetery on the bleak, snow-covered steppe inside the Kessel, December, 1942. After the war the Russians dug up the graves and reinterred the bodies in mass, unmarked graves.

So now the tables turned. Some German dead enjoyed, if that’s the right word, an orderly burial, only the Russians dug up the bodies and treated them as Germans treated the Jews. Justice? Retribution? A mad waste of time and energy? After all, the German soldiers remained just as dead, and no more so, after being thrown into frozen pits.

The destruction hit home for Germans. The 2003 German TV documentary titled Stalingrad ended with a segment on the fate of the Germans marched into captivity after the battle; over 100,000 left and 5,000 returned, some up to 10 years after the war ended. A returnee recalled the way the German dead were treated in the camps: “They took the bodies away in some way or another, sometimes in a disrespectful manner. The fellows who did the job used to grab the dead by their feet and drag them behind. Their heads used to shake from side to side, as if they were saying, ‘Not this way.’”

Footage from the 1955 return of German captives showed families holding up signs with names and pictures of their loved ones, desperately trying to either locate relatives or what happened to them. The signs eerily resembled the fliers that appeared after 9/11, as families tried to find those who never returned from the World Trade Center. To this day, German bodies remain unburied and unknown. A widow said, “That was the worst. I could not bury him. I could not stand beside his grave. To this day I cannot live with that.” Perhaps she identified with the grief of Jewish victims of Germans.

This record of savagery, continuing to this very day, heightens my deep appreciation for Jewish rituals of remembrance and mourning. I’ve visited my mother’s grave in Gonzales, Texas, and placed a rock on her headstone; I’ve said Kaddish in the houses of mourning. Yesterday I joined my fellow Jews to say Yitzkor for our loved ones who have passed to the World to Come. And I also remembered all the martyrs who were violated in death, in Warsaw, in Ramallah and in Benghazi.