“Hyim we will need your help tonight with a tahara,” said my father.
“But I have never done one,” I replied.
“There are only two of us available, and I hear the man was heavy, bloated, so we will need you.”
A tahara (literally “purification”) is the Jewish process of washing, dressing and preparing a dead body for burial. It is performed by a quiet dedicated group in every Jewish community called the, chevrah kadisha, literally, “the Holy Society.” Since Jews do not delay burial, the process invariably occurs late at night, on short notice, in preparation for burial the next day.
The groups’ name comes from the modest, profoundly giving work it does without any recompense. It is a Jewish holy act to bury the dead, a chesed shel emet, a “true kindness.” An act with no expectation of repayment, for its recipient cannot. Even the deceased’s family usually has no idea who washed and dressed their loved one, who like a baby can do nothing for themselves and is treated with care by the holy group.
At 11pm that night my father, my cousin, and myself, rendezvoused in the funeral home’s deserted parking lot. We slipped into the building through its back door, entering the section of the building blocked off from the public. Like being behind stage, the area is unseen, I imagine, in an effort to shield the public from the reality of death and the hands-on concreteness of body they would rather not know.
Sinks, tables, sponges, buckets, mops, crazy glue and a prayer book and box of tachrichim, white linen shrouds with no pockets (since you can’t take it with you), that we had brought along. Tucked in the box was a small sack of dirt from the ground of Israel to place under the dead man’s head; a little piece of the ancestral holy land in which Jewish people since Abraham have made fervent efforts to be interred.
The man lay before us, covered from head to toe by a plain sheet on an operating room like table. Long after the doctors of the living have left, we have come to carefully cleanse and meticulously dress, to cut nails and glue cuts, to recite psalms, and ultimately to return the final product of our intense work to the dirt from whence it came.
It is eerily quiet since we do not converse in the presence of the dead. He cannot join in, and we are entirely focused on him, the one lying before us. There is much ritual and respect, but no place for emotion. In its stead we have work, lifting dead weight, washing him, drying him; his private parts covered with a towel, as the body is holy and deserves modesty and respect.
“Do not pass anything over him,” cautions my cousin, “it is the law, out of respect for the dead.” Indeed, the body is not an object to be moved like a sack of potatoes, and yet we must grapple with this weighty corpse. We treat him with more quiet deference than we might a living being. In the stark face of death, we are all equal, all there to serve each other. Something unsaid intimately links him and us: as we do the burdensome, precarious work, of clothing him by hand, in the back of our minds we know one day someone will do this to us, for us.
I was quietly grateful that there was no talking, my mind racing anxiously faced with the first dead body I had seen up close. I recited the traditional psalms, taking comfort in an act that only the living can do, reading, praying, reciting.
“Lift…carefully,” says my father, “he is heavy. Hold his legs while I turn him to get the water under him. If you want gloves I think there are some.”
For generations my family has been the chevrah kadisha in our home town, a small Jewish community on the east coast. In the late 19th century my great grandfather, the head of the Holy Society, did taharahs in houses and in the linoleum tiled front parlor of his home.
Though I never had the guts for the real work of the taharah when I was young, I remember, as a youth filling graves with my father after a funeral of adults whom I did not know. When everyone had left but the grave was not completely filled my father told me to stay with him and complete the duty with shovels by hand. “The burial of the dead should be complete,” he would say.
The dead man oozes a bit of blood from a sore. “Use the crazy glue there,” says my cousin.
We mop the blood with a paper towel and place it in the coffin, as the human body must be respected and entirely buried, not thrown away. “You are dirt and to dirt you shall return,” fulfilling the words of God as stated in the Bible at the very beginning of Genesis.
When he is cleaned and dried we pour the water. Nine kabim, an ancient Talmudic measure of water, as specified in Jewish law. Three large buckets worth, uninterrupted, for the waters that purify must be poured without lapses in between. We recite Hebrew words of prayer as we tie his plain rope belt, put on his linen booties, lifting him, turning him, getting his shirt on straight; the loose, clean, white clothing of a newborn. When I was young and would ask my mother what death is like, she would tell me, “it is like before you were born.”
The experience, my first of the kind, was shocking but also a bit exhilarating. I felt initiated into the clandestine Holy Society. In the middle of the night, fueled by humility, ritual and profound respect for others; an other I did not know, an other who could never repay us.
To look death in the face without belittling it, with out denying it, to see in it the deep respect and caring owed to one made in the image of God, this is the work of the chevrah kadisha.