Preparing the Dead for Life's Final Passage By Ronna Kabatznick The three of us unwrapped her body and immediately covered it with a clean sheet. The dead woman looked to be in her late 60's. She was overweight, her hair gray and medium?length. I was grateful that her eyes were shut. The solid, heavy body seemed frighteningly empty: no personality, no trace of movement. The team leader asked me to remove the woman's two-identification tags, one from her wrist and the other from her ankle. I hesitated for a moment, took a deep breath and, for the first time in my life, touched a dead human being. Last winter I decided to become a member of the women's tahara, a division of the synagogue's burial society. Tahara, the ancient ritual of preparing bodies for burial, is the custom that marks the end of a Jew's life, just as circumcision or baby?naming marks the beginning. While most Jews are familiar with customs of mourning, tahara remains a mysterious rite performed by a few trained people, unobserved by family and friends. The chair of our burial society had put out a call for volunteers. Congregants at Netivot Shalom, a five-year old Conservative synagogue Berkeley, California, were quick to fill up the divisions concerned with the comfort of the living. They were, it seems, less enthusiastic about caring for the dead. Like them, I initially recoiled: washing and preparing bodies evoke memories of childhood ghost stories, not feelings of compassion. But, on a recent Buddhist meditation retreat, I began to reexamine my feelings about death. Through meditation, I came to understand the intimate and constant connection between life and death. I realized I could prepare the dead, and by doing so, I would be embracing life. I also hoped that a direct experience with death would make it less frightening and unnatural. Soon after I volunteered, I received a call saying that someone in the Orthodox community had died and they needed a third person for tahara. I was told to dress modestly, cover my head as a symbol of respect, and, because there is no Jewish funeral home in our community, was instructed to go to one in a seedy neighborhood in Oakland. The team leader, Maya, an Israeli expert in halachic burial techniques, met me at the side door of the funeral home and introduced me to the third member of the team ? an elderly Russian woman who spoke no English. We nodded to each other as Maya brought the necessary equipment. For the deceased: boards for elevating the body (it's considered disrespectful to turn the person over), buckets for washing, toothpicks for cleaning nails, bandages and tape to help cover wounds or sores, white linen shrouds, earth from Israel. For the living: surgical gowns and gloves.
Nothing can really prepare you for seeing and touching a dead body. I had seen non?Jewish people after they died, made?up and dressed at a funeral. It was nothing like the experience of being in the preparation room at a funeral home. After death, the body bloats and turns both cold and blue. Skin tears and bones break easily unless the body in handled with extreme care. The body is not only lifeless, but vulnerable. A 27?page booklet titled "Regulations and Procedure Including the Traditional Prayers and Translations" gives precise "how?to" instructions for the performance of tahara. It is very exact and orderly; unnecessary speech is prohibited, no part of the body is ever exposed unless it is washed. Team members must not turn their backs on the dead because it is considered an expression of disrespect. These delicate details support the basic functions of tahara: to ensure dignified treatment of the deceased. Maya told us the woman's English and Hebrew names. Knowing the identity ensures that the deceased is viewed as a person, not just a corpse. What I didn't know was how this woman died ? a crucial factor in deciding whether or not tahara is performed. For instance, purification is not always performed on a person who has died violently or a person who has many open sores and wounds. "Are you prepared for this?" Maya asked me; I simply shrugged. We entered a small room that looked like a run?down medical office. The body was lying wrapped on a gurney. Above it was a large fan; at the feet, a large sink. The room was messy but functional. The linoleum floor and formica countertops were marbled with stains. We donned the surgical gowns and washed each hand, beginning with the right, three times from a vessel. No blessing was recited and we let our hands dry naturally. Maya coached me through the preparatory prayers. I stumbled over each word with the clumsiness of a young Hebrew?school student. She gently corrected my numerous mistakes. The first prayer included this woman's Hebrew name. I wondered who she was, what she did for a living, whether she had children or grandchildren, what her home looked like ? questions for which I would never get an answer. We each had to pay careful attention to our actions: how we washed and dried our hands, which side of the body to wash first, which way to bring the coffin in and out of the room. Once the washing had been completed, we began the purification process of tahara. Three buckets of water (equal to 6 gallons) were filled. Our Russian teammate held the table steady as Maya and I poured a continuous stream of water from the buckets over her entire body. The instructions indicate that this must be done in tandem and if at any point we had stopped, we would have been forced to start all over again. As we were pouring, we recited "she is pure" three
times. We removed the boards that helped elevate the woman from the gurney and carefully dried her body with a clean white sheet. We then recited another prayer, which acknowledged that the deceased will be dressed in white linen shrouds, the clothes of salvation. The body is then clothed in trousers with closed feet, blouse, kittel (robe), face cover and cap. There are also sashes tied below the knees and around the waist. The ties are twisted four times while reciting "aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet" the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each sash is tied in the form of a shin, a symbol for God. Dressing the deceased woman was the most physically demanding part. We carefully lifted each limb as we placed the various garments on her. Her limbs felt like heavy wooden blocks. We were sweating heavily and our breathing became deep and rapid. We worked in silence, except for the sound of our collective breathing. When she was fully shrouded, I was moved by her beauty and her great dignity in the soft, white garments. At that moment, death began to seem benign, its mystery less inscrutable. We lined the coffin with a sheet, lifted her body with the assistance of a motor and four cloth straps. We guided the corpse into the coffin and wrapped it in the sheet. We each took a bit of soil from Israel and scattered it over her body, dusting her closed eyes, heart and genitals. The rest of the soil was scattered throughout the coffin. Before the lid was put on, Maya asked us to pray privately to the deceased person, to ask for forgiveness if we had done anything to hurt or offend her. For me, this was a blessed moment. It was the first and last time I was acknowledging the personal relationship between this woman and myself. In my prayer I thanked her for allowing me to perform this mitzvah and then, quite spontaneously, I said silently, "I wish you well." We placed the lid on the coffin, which, according to Jewish law, is never to be reopened again under any circumstances. We said a prayer that asked for the woman's blessing and protection. Quickly and efficiently, we removed our surgical gowns and gloves and took all the equipment and supplies out of the room. As we wheeled the coffin out of the room (feet first), we recited the final prayer, which invites the angels to watch over the person in all her paths and asks that no evil come before her. We wheeled the coffin into the chapel, where it would be watched by Maya until morning. Returning home that evening, I was struck by an intense awareness of my husband's warm body close to mine as we went to sleep. I listened to his heartbeat and the rush of blood running through his body. What surprised me even more, in the following days, was the way I reacted to situations that normally irritate me ?being cut off in traffic, waiting in line at the grocery store. Instead of feeling annoyed, I felt genuinely happy to be alive.
The Torah teaches care and respect for all that this world contains. Above all, we learn that the small acts of generosity heal the greatest wounds. Tahara is one of those acts. As one member of the men's tahara said to me, "We should only treat the living so well."? W
Ronna is a social psychologist and member of Netivot Shalom The above article originally appeared in Forward. The congregation's Chevra Kadisha committee needs your help in many areas, including visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and tahara. Please contact the office to volunteer or for more information.