It is early morning when the call I dread but expect comes. Hastily, I dress in somber, practical clothing and rearrange my work schedule for the day. I know the routine—as a member of my synagogue’s chevra kadisha, burial society, I have been through this sad drill before. But this time a cloud of disbelief hangs over me. I am going to prepare a friend for her grave.
As I hurry up Amsterdam Avenue to the funeral home, the roar of the street disorients me. I feel disconnected from such vitality, such an embrace of the day. The sight of the five other women chevra members who gather at the side door of the chapel with their stricken faces comforts me. We all knew the woman whose cancer-ravaged body lies below. We lived in the same neighborhood, watched our children tumble together in the playground, shared countless conversations.
By passing the old-world lobby with its regal moldings and marble floor, we descend a narrow staircase into a morbid basement emporium where the grim purpose of this place is all too clear. I try not to look, but my eye is invariably drawn to the tiny coffins; the delicately adorned, ivory-toned ones that could be jewelry boxes but I know await the death of a baby.
Just a few steps take us onto cement flooring and we enter a small room whose function seems janitorial. It is dominated by a white slab of a porcelain table. The mais, the body, is wheeled in on a gurney and positioned next to the table. Carefully and tenderly, the six of us lift the body of our friend onto the cold, hard surface and begin our work.
The procedure is a supremely respectful one. The mais is kept covered at all times. We make a drape of sheets before cutting off the hospital gown. Next, we remove all stigmata of final illness, indignity or unnatural intervention. The body will be returned to nature, delivered to the ground, without bandages or catheters. We, in the women’s chevra, frequently perform half manicures, taking off chipped nail polish and swabbing grime from beneath stiffened fingernails. We do not pass materials over the mais—all necessary items are handed around the side of the table. This body once housed a living spirit and our ritual honors that sanctity.
Conversation is minimal. Each of us hovers on the brink of tears. We rely on the ceremonial practicality of our task and the group’s complicity to maintain composure. We confine speech to the practical; requesting materials, shifting limb positions, agreeing that we can go on to the next step.
We wash the mais in a cascade of water poured in a continuous stream from buckets held, for the first time, overhead. Now we must dry and dress her. We pat the body with cloth, change the drape, and shake out the package of coarse linen burial shrouds, the tachrichim. Blouse, trousers, bonnet, face covering, booties, belt, and apron—they are all here. I feel the hint of a smile as I imagine the workshop where this clothing is sewn. A macabre fashion endeavor perhaps, but not without a sense of style, for the women’s tachrichim are trimmed with lace.
The job of dressing the mais is difficult. We struggle with the body’s dead weight as we pull on each garment and then wind and tie the closing ribbons. Ironic how these shrouds fasten with the same bows as the miniature kimonos used to dress newborns in hospital nurseries.
I remember how I was recruited for this task. A dozen years before, at the end of a synagogue service, one of the women who works alongside me today tapped me on the shoulder. “Michelle,” she said. “We need people for the women’s chevra. You’re a doctor— you can do it.” True, I had seen death during my professional training but still I harbored countless terrors of the grave. This was a different opportunity to confront and explore my fears. I agreed to try it out.
Chevra kadisha. Literally translated, sacred fellowship. The ancient religious obligation of burial derives from spare biblical verses concerning the proper disposition of dead criminals. Some chevras can trace their histories back hundreds of years. Each evolves its own rituals and customs. One of ours is the knotting style we use to fasten the drawstrings. The six of us who compose today’s chevra group form pairs holding either end of the set of ribbons. We wind, counting in Hebrew, our prescribed number of turns and form a half-bow. All the closures are done, except one.
The plain pine coffin is ready. Sprinkled inside is a handful of soil from the land of Israel. We lower the body of our friend into the wooden box that will cradle her into the earth. We make final adjustments – straightening a crease, patting a mitted hand. The coffin cover is placed but not fixed. The chevra is still. Tears spill over as we recite a brief prayer asking forgiveness for any indiscreet word, thought, or gesture any of us may have committed during our task.
Pallbearers now, we wheel the coffin into the crowded entry where a shomer, a watcher, sits, reciting Psalms. The body has been attended this way since the moment of death. Two women from the family of the deceased await us. We move the pine cover over so they can perform a last tender gesture, a final intimate rite for their sister. Holding hands, they wind and tie the ribbons of the open bootie. Ties of love, ties that bind the anguish of broken hearts so that healing can begin.
Michelle Friedman, M.D., lives with her family in Manhattan, where she practices psychiatry and writes.