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Lessons for Living From the Burial Society

What a ‘death midwife’ has learned from the dead and dying

Marjorie Ingall
July 17, 2019
Illustration: Angie Wang
Illustration: Angie Wang
Illustration: Angie Wang
Illustration: Angie Wang

I met Holly Blue Hawkins at the Limmud Festival in England last year. She led a session called “What 20 years in a chevra kadisha has taught me about living.” I wept through the entire hour.

Hawkins is the head of the chevra kadisha (burial society) in Santa Cruz, California, She also serves on the board of trustees of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of the state of California, teaches end-of-life planning classes in synagogues and schools, participates in Death Cafes (informal discussion groups about death and dying), and speaks at Kavod v’Nichum (literally “honor and comfort”) conferences.

The Jewish process of preparing a body for burial is dead simple, as it were. Members of the chevra kadisha wash their hands. They say a prayer asking forgiveness for any inadvertent offenses committed during the tahara, the process of cleansing and purification. They remove jewelry, wipe the body with warm cloths, wash it in a ritual bath or with poured buckets of water, recite “tehora hee” (“she is pure”) together. They dry the body tenderly, dress it in plain white cotton muslin or linen, tie the strings on the clothing so that the loops form a letter shin for Shaddai, one of God’s names. They may wrap the body in a prayer shawl, if the person wore one to pray in life. Then they place the body in a plain pine box and wrap it in a white cotton or linen sheet.

Holly Blue Hawkins. (Photo courtesy Holly Blue Hawkins)
Holly Blue Hawkins. (Photo courtesy Holly Blue Hawkins)

Hawkins’ interest in the liminal process of dying began back in the 1980s, when she was co-leading support groups in the Maui Community Corrections Facility. After moving to California, she worked as a paralegal, helping clients with estate planning and advance-care directives, before moving into chevra kadisha service. Here’s some wisdom gleaned from her Limmud talk and from a long-ranging interview conducted last week.

Anyone can be a helper.

“I got involved in this work way back in the mid-’90s, when some friends were forming a chevra kadisha. At the time I was disabled from a too-much-using-a-mouse injury and couldn’t do tahara. I couldn’t lift things. But what I could do was sit. I could read psalms and talk to the person. That practice of just sitting with a body, not touching, is called shmira —being a shomer, a guardian. We stay with the body from the time the person dies until they’re buried. This was something meaningful I could do.”

Jewish values mean caring for the vulnerable, even when it’s hard.

Chevra kadisha literally means sacred society. Traditionally it doesn’t just take care of the dead. It looks after indigent people and people who are bereaved or ill. It takes care of the cemetery. It’s a broad stretch of caring for the vulnerable. Some of us are working hard toward bringing that back, doing all those things. In the past, every time Jews had to move from one place to another, the first thing they did was create a cemetery. Not a synagogue or general store. Because in our tradition when someone dies, we try to bury them within the first 24 hours. ‘Sacred society’ sounds kind of grand; I prefer ‘holy friends.’ This is a holy order within Judaism, doing this work. When I’m teaching now, I don’t say funeral or burial. I say levaya, which means accompaniment. That’s the most important thing we do—accompany others.”

When something is uncomfortable, slow down and pay attention.

“I’d been doing tahara for years before I understood that when you’re dealing with something intense that you just want to get through as quickly as you can, that’s when it’s most important to slow down. Right at the point when you most want to speed up. Take deep breaths and invoke the sacred in whatever way you do that. That’s had an impact on my life in all kinds of ways. When I’m dealing with the body of someone who maybe who had a terrible illness or died in a tragic accident, I’ll take extra time. Carefully, gently brushing the hair. Washing the limbs. It doesn’t matter whether the person is literally in that body. Once, during a very difficult tahara, we began singing Ana B’Ko’ach.” We started nigun-ing. And that’s when the sacredness came back into the room. How do you turn a difficult task into a prayer? We pray with our hands while doing tahara. As my friend Richard Light says, it’s like midwifing souls—how cool is that?”

Let in joy whenever you can.

“People say to me, ‘I don’t understand how you can do such depressing work and be such a bubbly person!’ And I say, ‘It’s because I do this work that I’m a bubbly person!’ The last person I did was 102 years old. In life, she really liked attention. She liked to look good. If she had a bad haircut, oh, you heard about it. As we were working on her, music started pouring in the window from outside—it was so perfect. And in the preparation room, as we’re tying the knots [in the strings tied to form the letter shin], I found myself softly singing “You, baby, nobody but you,” because this really was all about her. I think she would have loved that level of focus on her.”

Death isn’t a moment. It’s a process. And it isn’t gross.

“I believe the connection between life and death doesn’t sever like you’re cutting a string. It’s gradual. Someone once said that death is like drawing a hair out of a glass of milk. We’re so programmed in our society to go, ‘Ew, scary, bodies.’ But why? We say tehora hee over the body, and we say it every day in our morning prayers. ‘Elohai neshama she’natata bee, tehora hee: My God, the soul you gave me is pure.’ I always say tehora hee three times, the way we do when we are pouring buckets of water on the bodies in the ceremony after we’ve cleaned them. It’s basically giving them their last sponge bath. And that’s how I start my day. It is something you do with reverence.”

Remember that death is coming, no matter what.

“One day it will be my friends taking care of me. Knowing that keeps me more alive. Am I gonna squander this day? As Rabbi Hillel said, ‘If not now, when?’ We say to repent the day before you die … but when is that gonna be? Who knows? In the bedtime Shema, we practice dying a little bit. Every night before we go to bed. It’s all there in our tradition, but we’ve lost touch with a lot of it.”

Look for beauty in everyone and everything.

“Maybe the person who died is very elderly or was very sick. We still sing the Song of Songs to them. We still say, ‘How beautiful you are, my beloved.’ There’s always a point where the body has to be adjusted on the table, and that’s kind of my thing. I want to do it. I want to think, ‘This person was once a tiny newborn baby, and someone did this for them.’ Someone hugged this person. I want to pick them up in my arms. People are like, ‘Yuck, you take dead bodies in your arms?’ And I’m like, ‘Right!’ This is not a Bela Lugosi movie! This is a holy vessel. It’s reframing. And in life, it tells me that all bodies are beautiful. This whole body-shaming thing—excuse me? You were created b’tzelem Elohim [in God’s image]!”

Give people the benefit of the doubt.

“I am the old hippie who lives at the end of the road and tries not to go to town much. I hate crowds. I hate driving across Santa Cruz when there’s traffic. But now I think, ‘If I’m going to treat a body as precious when there’s no one in it, how much more is a person deserving of kavod, of honor and love and respect?’ Where I’m going with this is even, God forbid, if someone is executed for a heinous crime, our tradition says that that person deserves to be treated the same way in death as someone who lived an exemplary life. Why can’t we give people the benefit of the doubt in life?”

Honoring the dying means honoring the living.

Kavod ha’met is honoring the body of the deceased, which is why we Jews advocate so strongly for not doing an autopsy under normal circumstances. But if someone dies under suspicious circumstances—not necessarily as in ‘did someone off them’ but as in why did they die; did they have a disease that could impact their lineage for generations, or did they die of a disease that could be spreading—we could preserve other lives. So we do an autopsy. And the Jewish value of organ donation—which is pikuach nefesh, saving a life—has more weight than kavod ha’met.”

Cry when you want to cry.

“It’s a tough sell to get me to cry when I’m unhappy. But I can weep over beauty. A week and a half ago, I was standing at William Wordsworth’s grave and reading ‘Daffodils’ and weeping uncontrollably. And I had to say to myself, ‘This is good. This is OK. This level of beauty is exactly what we need here in this world.’ Think about the moment when someone you adore is being lowered into the ground and you pick up that shovel upside down and reluctantly throw dirt on that coffin and it goes bang, so loud—it’s supposed to make you feel. To make you fall apart. It’s deliberate. We all grieve differently, but if we stop ourselves from our grief, we’re stopping ourselves from our joy. It’s the same plumbing. It’s like Lamaze breathing. Trying to prevent feeling from happening means we’ll fail. We may fool ourselves into thinking we’ve got it handled, but it’ll come out some other way. And it’ll probably be worse.”

There’s no rehearsal; there’s only practice.

When you’re rehearsing, you’re doing a very serious ‘let’s pretend.’ But if every time we do something, it’s the only chance we get to do it exactly like that, we bring a whole other level of kavannah [intentionality] to it. If today is just a rehearsal for tomorrow, how different is that from saying, ‘Oh, just do t’shuva the day before you die’? This may be it! You and I will never have another chance to have this conversation. We’ll hopefully have others. But the difference between rehearsal and practice is: Give it everything you’ve got. That’s not to say there’s never rehearsal—you will fry yourself trying to be perfect all the time. A friend was going to pieces because her mother was dying, and I was all, ‘You’re going to only get one chance to do this. Is this how you want to be right now?’ And she became the warrior. She paid attention. She had kavannah. And it made a huge difference to her mother’s dying experience.”

Fear can be healthy.

Yira means fear and awe. But I say it’s neither; it’s the place between the two. That’s where we have yichud, connection. That’s where we’re in I-Thou with an experience. If we’re not in balance, we’ll either scream or wow ourselves right into the cosmos and kind of miss it. I think of the day I was standing in front of an active volcano and watching it start to erupt. Or that moment at Sinai when God said hello and all the people freaked out and fell down, and Moses was the only one in a state of yira, because he had an I-Thou relationship with Hashem [God]. If we can practice holding those scary, profound moments in a sacred manner—like that moment when I hold a dead body in my arms and think, ‘this was a baby once, wow’—that’s yira.”


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.