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The Rituals of Death

From time immemorial, it has been a Jewish duty to bury our dead properly. Jewish law requires that we show proper respect for a corpse, protect it from desecration, and ritually cleanse and dress the body for burial. A chevra kaddisha (burial society) is a loosely-structured group of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of Jews are prepared for burial according to these rules.

Some time ago, a friend asked me if I would like to become a member of the chevra kaddisha being formed in Atlanta. Until then, this work was being done by an older couple about to move to Israel. The growing, committed Jewish community in our city also made the need for a chevra kaddisha more urgent. I immediately answered yes. I did not think too many people would respond to this call; I also thought my background as a surgeon’s assistant would eliminate the squeamishness that others might feel.

At the first meeting — to everyone’s surprise — there was a tremendous turnout. Rabbi David Epstein outlined the requirements and pointed out that two different groups would be needed: shmira, watching the body for protection against desecration; and tahara, the ritual purification of the body. Not surprisingly, more people volunteered for shmira — a far easier task — but we had enough people for both groups.

Soon after that meeting, we were called to perform this mitzvah for the first time. There were nine women that evening: all of us novices; all of us getting in one another’s way. On the way to the funeral home, we had disguised our fears about what would transpire with lively chatter.

However, once we entered the room where the body lay, we were silent. There was death lying on the table — that mysterious, deepest fear of the unknown that reduces us all to a common humanity. The trepidation all of us felt upon entering the room where the body lay, and the complete physicality of the preparations for tahara, served as a remarkable contrast to the spirituality of the occasion and the emotions of everyone present.

We formed a silent circle around the covered body and our preconceived feelings of dread overcame us. Many of us were shaking, some turned white. Still there was an unmistakable peace here, in this room.

Following the training given by Rabbi Epstein and utilizing a book he had prepared, we ritually washed our hands three times, and recited the prayer of Rachamim, requesting kindness for the body. Some women stood on the right of the body, some on the left. Carefully, we began washing the body on the right side first through a sheet wetted down by a hose. We uncovered only the part of the body we were washing and cleansed it lovingly. We cleaned and filed the nails, removed visible dirt, bandages and other foreign matter. The body must be cleansed of anything that might come between the purifying water and the body itself.

There is a strict order to this cleaning. We started at the head: the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and continued down the right side, then the left. When we saw the woman’s face, much of our tension lightened. This elderly woman looked so peaceful, so relaxed. She seemed to have found an inner quiet which oddly calmed us.

Now she was ready for tahara, the actual purification by water. We cranked the table on which the body was strapped so that it was perpendicular to the floor, and placed a pan underneath. Then we poured three large pails of water over the body in immediate succession, taking care that the flow was continuous. The physical side of this procedure was almost comic — we were thoroughly soaked.

Afterwards, we lowered the table to its horizontal position and dried the body with a sheet. With a peculiar maternalism, we clothed the body in pure-white garments, each specially tied. On this table, all wear the same clothing and all are equal: male and female, rich and poor.

The meticulous care with which we performed these acts, and the time we spent with this woman, heightened our feelings of holiness. A funeral home deals with bodies; we were dealing with a person, and we felt the power of this mitzvah as we worked. We were calmed, humbled, hallowed. The Shechina — the Presence of G-d — touched each one of us so that we, too, became purified, sanctified. Was it because the Shechina had descended upon us? Or had we transcended our physicality to meet it? We slowly finished dressing the holy body, covered it with a sheet, and quietly exited the room.

Since that time, the chevra kaddisha has performed this mitzvah many times. If the person is known to us — and in a small community, that is often the case — we begin our work by talking about her — and — then concentrate on the actual task at hand. I helped in the tahara of two women who were friends of my mother, who had died many years before. Since I knew them both in life and death, I felt even more devoted to this avodah — a word meaning both “work and service to G-d.”

Being part of a chevra kaddisha means performing a mitzvah for another Jewish woman who can never thank you: this is the greatest mitzvah of all. It has also given me the ultimate awareness of the link between the human and the Divine. We are sending this daughter of G-d off on her journey, from earth to her heavenly home.

Betsy Kaplan has lived most of her life in Atlanta, where she raised four children. She is a classical pianist and a real estate agent who is about to make aliyah.