Few subjects instill as much dread and fear as death. It can be a precarious subject to tackle in a film. Perhaps the most challenging aspect for a filmmaker is finding the right way to approach the topic while maintaining sensitivity and not being intrusive or grotesque.
Sarah Marcuson’s short documentary “A Holy Duty” is different than perhaps any film you’ve seen involving the subject. The film explores the “Chevra Kadisha” or “sacred society” of Jewish men and women who prepare the bodies of deceased Jews for burial according to Jewish tradition.
“A Holy Duty” opens with shots of the equipment and space where the preparation and cleansing of the body takes place. This sequence immediately piques curiosity. Visuals of tools and gently swaying straps initially unsettle as you wonder what you’re about to see.
Let’s be clear, you will not see anything graphic in this film.
Instead, “A Holy Duty” focuses on what drives someone to take on the role of looking after the dead.
The film features an interview with a lovely volunteer of the Melbourne Chevra Kadisha and how she became involved in the organization following the passing of her friend’s child. In the film she describes how volunteers prepare the departed by first cleansing the body in soap and water followed by immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), an act of purification done before the deceased is then dressed in a specific number of white linen layers.
The volunteer is very calming to listen to. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the imagery of tools and equipment that previously seemed unsettling. By the end of the 9-minute film, any uneasiness has been replaced by a feeling of collectedness and peace.
Marcuson is outstanding at giving viewers a window into a world that for many is unknown. The intimate approach of having a sole protagonist sharing her personal experience and insight provides viewers with a closeness that removes mystery and replaces it with understanding.
Viewers will leave “A Holy Duty” with a deep admiration for the Chevra Kadisha volunteers who help bereaved families through their selfless acts. Their kindness is beautiful and will stay with you long after this short film.