History of a Jewish burial society: An examination of secularization

Mareleyn Schneider, Fordham University


This study investigates the processes of change in religiosity in an Orthodox Jewish burial society. The study first describes the history of the term secularization, culminating in the specification of (1) its six contemporary meanings and their limitations as well as (2) its most common connotation: the loss of traditional religious practices, beliefs, and/or institutions. It goes on to discuss secularization's relevance to the Jewish experience. To collect part of the data the researcher investigated application forms, receipts, letters, membership files, and financial transactions of deceased members, extending to the organization's constitutions, amendments, letters, and other available historical and theological information. Unstructured and structured interviews with members and personnel provided more detail. A survey questionnaire, given to 20 people via snowball sampling, contributed additional information about attitudes, behaviors, and knowledge of Jewish mortuary rites. Examination of half the cemetery plots owned by the organization yielded a graphic portrait of change. Observations of the staff at work rounded out the picture. Analysis of the data showed the organization's religious structure has been transformed by the secular, contemporary world. More revealing were two other powerful forces competing in modernity with secularization's putative weakening tendencies: cooptation processes and continuity. The former describes efforts by the burial society to sometimes adopt secular elements after exploration, examination, and adaptation. The latter reflects rituals and beliefs which have persisted throughout periods of socio-cultural change. By looking at the religious group's philosophical, historical, and legal stance on acceptable and not-acceptable change, the researcher concluded that familiar approaches to secularization overlook the significance of counter-processes. A multi-level use of secularization--applied in an historical context--shows that the global process of secularization can produce both strengthening and weakening of traditional religious attachments. Thus, for traditional Jewry, the secularization concept may have additional, particularized meanings: the partial or temporary loss of normative religiosity and, ironically, the sacralization of some secularity after modification. This analysis of a Jewish burial society should contribute to a deeper understanding of the ambiguities and complexities of the secularization concept. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.)

Subject Area

Sociology|Religious history|Cultural anthropology

Recommended Citation

Schneider, Mareleyn, "History of a Jewish burial society: An examination of secularization" (1988). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8818477.