by Rabbi Ellen A. Greenspan
When my phone rang on a Saturday morning, I knew something was wrong because the friend whose name appeared on my caller ID does not usually use the phone on Shabbat.
“Hi,” I said. “Is something wrong?”
“Risa died,” Linda* blurted out.
Linda and I had both lost touch with Risa over the last five years or so, as our children were no longer in school together. Linda had been quite close with her at one time; I was the tag-along friend.
Risa had been instrumental in starting a Chevra Kadisha at one of our local Conservative synagogues. It has been in existence for four or five years, and a small group of dedicated volunteers will perform the sacred rituals of preparing a body for burial when a family wants their deceased loved one to receive this very traditional honor. Linda was a member of the Chevra Kadisha, and she and Risa had joked that whoever died first was lucky because the other would be able to do her tahara, ritual washing, part of preparing the body for burial.
“But it was a joke,” Linda said, tearfully.
Then, Linda asked me if I would be willing to serve as a member of the four-woman team that would do Risa’s tahara. They needed a fourth person; they wanted someone who had known and cared about Risa.
In Jewish tradition, preparing a person for burial in the traditional manner is considered the highest mitzvah, because the deceased cannot thank you; you get nothing in return other than the satisfaction of having performed the sacred ritual.
I was honored to have been asked – but also extremely nervous. I had seen a dead body before – but only at (non-Jewish) wakes, in coffins, ready for burial and once when I was present when a friend’s mother passed away at home after a long battle with cancer.
I had certainly never seen a dead person who was a peer, a friend.
I was the only member of the four person team who had never performed a tahara before. Not that the others had done many, but at least this was not their first, although none had done one for a peer, for someone who wasn’t “old” or who hadn’t died of a debilitating illness.
When Shabbat ended, I got in my car and drove, with a lot of trepidation, to the funeral parlor, about 25 minutes from my house. As instructed, I went to the back door of the funeral home and called Linda on her cell phone because the buzzer was not working. She let me in, and Bonnie, the leader of the tahara team, told me not to worry, to just follow their lead. I was given very little guidance before we began, but they did tell me:
- As much as possible, the tahara is done silently.
- Walk around the feet, not the head, if you have to walk around the body (which actually turned out to be impossible).
- Avoid passing anything over the body.
- Wearing a gown and latex gloves was my choice. (“Really?!” I thought. “And does it make me seem squeamish if I want to wear them?” In the end I wore both – and was glad I did).
We were ready to begin. They opened the door to the giant refrigerator where the body was waiting for us, in a white body bag, on a gurney. We wheeled Risa into the washing room, where the coffin had already been prepared with a special linen lining, a linen pillow filled with straw and dirt from Israel. Risa’s tallit was waiting, as were the linen shrouds in which we would dress her when we were finished with the washing.
We unzipped the body bag….and there was Risa, looking eerily like herself…but not. I had never seen a body look so still and cold. (Even before I touched her, I knew she was cold).
Tahara consists of two washings, one for actual cleanliness and the second for ritual purification.
The washing for cleanliness was hard, physically and emotionally. Dying is not a “clean” process, and a dead body is very heavy. I learned what the expression “dead weight” means. We had to wash every part of her. We did our best to honor Risa as we went about the very intimate process of cleaning her up. We removed her nail polish, washed her body, trimmed her nails and combed her hair. (Very carefully, because all the nail clippings and any hair that comes out when you comb has to be buried with the body). We tried our best to be gentle and loving, but it was a challenge for us – four smallish women – to avoid “manhandling” her body more than we would have liked.
The ritual cleansing felt much better. One of us stood at Risa’s head and read a psalm while the other three emptied our buckets of clean water over Risa’s body in a continuous stream. (If the stream of water flowing over the person is not continuous, you have to repeat the ritual washing – but we got it right on the first try).
After drying off her body, we had to dress Risa in her linen shrouds. I admit to questioning the wisdom of Jewish tradition requiring that the dead be buried in clothing – linen pants, a linen shirt and a linen jacket. It was not easy to dress the body in garments (both the shirt and the jacket) that go over the head. We struggled, sighed, tugged and prodded and eventually succeeded at our task. We covered Risa’s hair in the traditional linen hat, tied all the ties with the traditional slip knots, wrapped her in her tallit, and with some difficulty transferred Risa to the waiting casket.
The final step of closing the casket is not taken until the family arrives to say their last good-byes to their loved one.
While we were waiting for Risa’s family to arrive, we sat in a small kitchenette in the funeral home and debriefed. We agreed that we had done the best we could and that we had honored Risa’s memory.
Linda was upset that we were not better at the process. She said that when they were being trained, they had seen a video of a Chevra Kadisha doing a tahara that looked like a ballet. The process was so smooth, seamless, and beautiful. They never had to stop (as we did) to consult the written instructions, review the next step and make sure they were doing it right. This Chevra Kadisha, serving the non-Orthodox community, is only called upon a few times a year. A traditional community’s Chevra Kadisha might do 3 or 4 ritual washings a day. It will be a while before this Chevra Kadisha will gain that kind of experience, so in the meantime, they do the best they can to honor the memories of those whose washings they do.
I was honored to be asked to help with this intimate ritual. It was a physically and emotionally draining experience, but one that felt very powerful, sacred and satisfying all at the same time. It is not something I would run to do again. But if I were asked, I know I could not refuse.
*All the names have been changed.