It used to be that the burial of the dead was harder for the family than the actual death [because of the cost]; it reached the point where they would put down the body and run away but then Rabban Gamaliel came and set an example by having himself buried in a linen garment, and all the people followed him and were buried in linen garments. -Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 27b
The other day I was walking the dog early in the morning, when I encountered a pickup truck parked on the shoulder of the road up to our new neighborhood. The road runs past a patch of rocky hillside covered with wild flowers, wild herbs, and thistles. An Arab man and a teenage boy were wading through the greenery, bringing to the truck armloads of wild sage plants they had pulled out. Trifoliate sage is one of the most common wild herbs in this area it grows everywhere, sturdy, fragrant, waist-high evergreen bushes which at this season are covered with stalks of little pink-to-white flowers. It is used not only as a seasoning and as a tea herb, but has a long list of reputed medicinal uses, from settling an upset stomach to soothing mouth sores, lowering blood sugar, and improving memory.
The villagers around us often go out to collect rarer herbs at this season and their uprooting of marjoram (za'atar) plants is an issue, as it is a protected species and is highly valued, like sage, as a seasoning and as a medicine. Sometimes the conflict even escalates to shouting matches or a call to the police by a zealous citizen. But I'd never seen anyone collecting sage here before, and right there along the main road at a busy time of day. So I asked. "Oh," the man answered, "We have a funeral. We need this for a funeral." "Ah, I see," I said, and kept walking. And hurried home to look it up
Sure enough, trifoliate sage is an important element in Moslem funeral ceremonies. (I have visited a mourning tent, and seen a funeral from the distance, but never actually participated in one close up). Sometimes the body is laid on a bed of it; it is also used to make garlands and to strew over the grave. Its main appeal is its fragrance, which simply makes the funeral and the cemetery more esthetic, but also is believed to attract angels and repel demons. Moreover, since sage is also used in ceremonies at the birth of a baby, it is seen as symbolizing the whole life cycle. As it happened, the next day was a meeting the study group of imams that I help facilitate, and they confirmed exactly what I had learned from the internet. Who knew?
Having been brought up knowing that Jews don't use flowers at funerals, I was quite taken aback at my first Jewish funeral here to discover that it is customary to bring wreathes and bouquets and pile them on the newly filled-in grave before leaving the cemetery. Later I found out that what I thought I knew was indeed correct, and at strictly Orthodox funerals, flowers are not brought. Most funerals in Israel are conducted under the supervision of the local religious council and presided over by the local Orthodox rabbi, but attended by people who assume that piling flowers on the grave is normative. And no one tells them it is not. So I guess that means that it is.
Whether beautified by sage from the neighbors' field, or by expensive wreathes from the florist shop, or none of the above, one thing common to Jewish and Moslem funerals in all communities here is the fundamental simplicity. The infamous funeral "industry" of North America has not yet found its way here. Most people in Israel, Jewish and Moslem, are buried as soon as possible after death (sometimes the same day) in a white shroud (no coffin); or if in a coffin, then in a plain wooden box.
And afterwards, I guess, we all go to the same place.