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Preparing the Dead

A burial society’s life lessons

Diana Bletter
August 07, 2008
Illustration by Katherine Streeter
Illustration by Katherine Streeter
Illustration by Katherine Streeter
Illustration by Katherine Streeter

The call came when I was cooking dinner, which surprised me. Bad news usually comes in the middle of the night. My good friend Drorit’s daughter, Tal—one of my youngest son’s best friends—had been in a car accident. By early morning, she was dead.

The next day, an hour before Tal’s funeral, I rode my bicycle to the cemetery of our village on the Mediterranean shore in the Western Galilee. Everything was gloomy and gray: the sky, the sea, and the dismal task that lay before me. I’m a member of our village’s chevra kadisha, the burial society (the literal translation is “sacred society”). We perform the tahara, the washing and dressing of a dead woman for burial. About two hundred families live here, so I usually know the deceased. Most of the time the women are elderly, and while I feel somber doing their tahara, I sense that the women are at peace, surrendering to their fate. But now I faced performing this rite on a 17-year-old girl.

I began to wonder why I even agreed to this difficult volunteer job in the first place. I guess it began because of my own search for a meaningful Jewish life and because of a woman I’ll call Michal. A former ballet dancer, she had lived with James Taylor, hung out with the Beatles, and soared through the 1960s until she landed as a born-again Jew. I met her in the Long Island suburb where I lived for two years beginning in 1989. My parents, first-generation Americans, had raised me in that suburb—in fact, in that very same house. And while they had given me a sense of Jewish pride, they had passed on the idea that Jewish rituals and traditions were old-world superstitions. Now I found myself spiritually hungry. My father had passed away a few years before; I had three small children and a fourth on the way. I wanted to give my children a deeper sense of Judaism than the one I grew up with. I decided to check out a modern Orthodox synagogue nearby and I was struck by how warm and welcoming its members were. Then I met Michal, who began to serve as my spiritual mentor, proving that you could be hip and savvy and also a Sabbath observer. When she told me she was a member of the local chevra kadisha, I was intrigued. Michal explained that performing a tahara for a dead woman was the greatest mitzvah, the holiest deed one could ever do.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the dead can never thank you.”

A tahara, then, was hesed shel emet, a one-way act of true kindness. The rite appealed to me, but living in the suburbs did not. I had wanted to live in Israel since visiting the country on a tour when I was 16, and so I moved here with my family in 1991, before I had the chance to join Michal’s chevra kadisha group.

Jewish tradition has stressed the importance of a proper burial since the Biblical account of Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpela to bury his wife Sarah. How Sarah and the other matriarchs and patriarchs were buried is a mystery. In Genesis, when Jacob summoned his son Joseph to his deathbed, he requested, “Deal with me in kindness and faithfulness. Please do not bury me in Egypt.” Joseph heeded the second part of his request and did not bury Jacob in Egypt; he did, however, embalm his father, an Egyptian practice that never caught on among later generations of Jews. Ironically, one of the first clear-cut references to what the ancient Jews did with their dead comes from the Gospel of John, who described how Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body and “wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” (The spices were a mixture of myrrh and aloe, but John doesn’t elaborate on their use.)

By the 16th century, the Shulchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish law, contained instructions on how to properly treat the dead. According to Rabbi Maurice Lamm, author of The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, membership in the chevra kadisha was always considered a privilege. Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, director of the National Association of Chevros Kadisha, says that in pre-World War II Europe membership in the chevra kadisha was passed on from father to son as well as from mother to daughter. So many people coveted membership that when new members were needed, they were chosen by lot or by secret vote. But in America, Zohn says, by the 1950s, non-Orthodox American Jews had begun to leave the care of their dead to funeral parlors, most without tahara options. “It became a very unpopular hesed,” Zohn says, “with only a few older people performing the service.”

In the 1970s, a Conservative congregation in Minneapolis created a stir when it started a chevra kadisha. (Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman, part of that group, describes the experience in his 1981 book A Plain Pine Box: A Return to Simple Jewish Funerals and Eternal Traditions.) There are no statistics on how many chevra kadisha groups now exist in the United States, but Rabbi Zohn says that in the past twenty years “there’s been a real movement toward being involved with chevra kadisha work, even among Reform and Conservative Jews, young people, and professionals.” The 10-year-old website, which features guidance for those starting a chevra kadisha as well as information about funeral traditions and organ donation, is visited by more than 120,000 people a year, according to its editor, David Zinner, executive director of Tifereth Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C. Interest has sparked an annual North American Chevra Kadisha Conference that is now in its sixth year.

A few years after I moved to Israel, my friend Michal suddenly died. That same year the rabbi of our village asked me to join the chevra kadisha. By then, living in Israel had chipped away at my enchantment with religious fundamentalism. I still attended Sabbath morning services, kept kosher, and made traditional Friday night dinners, but I had begun driving on Saturday because, given a six-day work week, it was my family’s only day to visit friends in other places. Volunteering in the chevra kadisha was a way to honor Michal’s memory for all she had taught me. I also wanted to give something back to the residents of the seaside community I now called home.

I performed my first tahara on a woman I never knew. Throughout the ritual, I felt jittery and uneasy. I worried I’d do the wrong thing, move her body the wrong way. I took shallow breaths, partly out of fear and partly because I was wary of inhaling the stale, sour odor of the dead. As soon as the tahara ended, I stepped outside the burial house and breathed in deep. I was standing in the cemetery but I was still flooded with a sense of relief. I had returned to the realm of the living. The following morning, I went to the village synagogue and sat—randomly, I supposed—in another section, in a seat I had never sat in before. I looked down and saw the dead woman’s name: it had been her seat. It seemed like a divine act of synchronicity, a sign that being part of a chevra kadisha was something I should continue to do.

When a woman dies, the rabbi contacts one of the chevra kadisha members. She, in turn, calls the other women. As soon as I find out I have to do a tahara, I feel humbled. Whatever I was going through during the day—standing too long on line at the bank or celebrating a just-published short story—suddenly loses significance in the face of death. I change out of my usual pair of jeans and put on a patchwork skirt and a plain black shirt that I’ve set aside as my chevra kadisha clothes. I could wear any clothes to do a tahara, but I wore this skirt and shirt during my first tahara and after that, they seemed charged with a different purpose. My friend Ann, another American immigrant and chevra kadisha volunteer, says that she also has a set of chevra kadisha clothes. “That outfit is like a uniform,” she says. “It represents what I’m about to do. And it’s important that I can take it off afterwards and go on with my life.”

The village’s one-room burial house sits in a corner of the cemetery. It is a simple stone house, built in the 1950s. The cement walls are barren but for a small sink and faucet. The tiles on the floor have faded so much over the years that nobody can tell what color they once were. Several empty coffins stand upright in one corner, empty and ominously ready. When the chevra kadisha members arrive—a minimum of four women is required by Talmudic law—we greet each other quietly. Even if I’ve been in the midst of a spectacular day, I feel thoughtful, somber, focused. We don disposable latex gloves and white cotton lab coats—donated by a nearby hospital—that are kept in the burial house. And although only one or two of the chevra kadisha members are religious, we all wear scarves or hats as a sign of respect.

The dead woman lies on a marble slab in the middle of the room, covered with a sheet. Her feet face the door, as is the custom. First, we gather in a circle around the deceased and one of us says a prayer, asking God to help us perform our task with “loving kindness and with truth.” Then we get to work. With the sheet still over the dead woman to preserve her dignity, we carefully inspect the body, removing all bandages, hospital tags, and jewelry (I once gently plucked a gold Star of David necklace out of a dead woman’s closed hand).

As at a Seder, the order of the tahara is precise. We are required to use nine kavim of water (twenty-four quarts) and, beginning on the right side, we pour water on her head, her neck, arm, the upper half of her body, the lower half. We do the same on her left side, then her back. The tahara is really a woman’s last mikva, her final ritual bath. To borrow a Christian term—which was borrowed from the Jewish idea—this is her ultimate kosher baptism.

After patting her dry, we take off her nail polish, trim her fingernails, and brush her hair. We don’t add any makeup. Finally, we dress her in the tachrichim, the linen burial shrouds, which are grayish beige. There are no buttons, zippers, or pockets.

In other parts of the world, dirt is imported from Israel in recognition of the idea from Genesis that “dust you are and to dust you will return.” In our village, one of us simply scoops up some dirt from outside and sprinkles it on the deceased’s closed eyes. Then we cover her with the head shroud, followed by the pants, bunching them up at the bottom as if they were a pair of loose linen stockings. When I slide my hand into the sleeve of the shroud-shirt to pull the woman’s arm through, I’m reminded of dressing my newborn babies. But a dead woman’s skin is stiff and cold. I’ve never gotten over my discomfort at touching a dead woman’s skin, maybe because it represents all of death’s mystery. We loosely tie three sashes without knots to hold the shrouds in place and say a prayer, asking the dead for forgiveness if we unintentionally disrespected her in any way.

This is the ritual if a woman dies peacefully. But Tal, my son Ari’s friend, had been in an accident and her body was splattered with blood. Since blood is holy, a part of the body, it must not be washed away. We couldn’t do a tahara for Tal. It was terrible not being able to do this last rite and give her some kind of closure, so we stood in a silent circle, not sure what to do next. Tal was a vibrant, lovely teenager. She had been Ari’s close friend since nursery school. Her little sister was Ann’s daughter’s best friend. All of our lives were intertwined and losing her so senselessly, so young, felt unbearable. We stood there, speechless, in tears. Seeing Tal like that was more than I had bargained for when I joined the chevra kadisha.

“Her mom just asked us to cut some of her hair,” I said. My voice sounded ripped apart, like a shirt collar that has been torn right before a funeral, as a traditional sign of mourning.

Carefully lifting the sheet, Ann cut off some of Tal’s long, earthy-blond curls.

“Is that enough?” I asked.

“It will never be enough,” Ann whispered.

We unfurled a crisp burial sheet and let it float down around Tal. Yet we lingered, not ready to say good-bye. Then we lifted her into the coffin. Tal had studied dance, she had been graceful and lithe, but it took all our strength to raise her. I remembered Michal’s husband telling me the same thing after Michal died in their home. He said, “The dead are always heavy because the soul has gone and it’s the soul that carries the body.”

I believe that the soul carries the body. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained, you can hold a wooden chair in your hands and feel that it exists. But if the chair is burning, you can’t hold the heat and energy that is created from the fire. No substance really disappears, he said, it is transformed, and the same holds true for our souls. I might have drifted away from an Orthodox way of life, but the Rebbe’s concept is proven to me again and again during a tahara. The work fills me with a sense of the inexplicable and the divinely mysterious. A sense that what we do in our lives reverberates, somehow, even after our deaths; and that what we do for the dead has power and resonance. A sense of my place in the chain of Jewish history. And a sense of being gratefully, utterly, miraculously alive.

Diana Bletter is a writer based in the Western Galilee and author of the forthcoming memoir, The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle. She blogs at The Best Chapter.