Nearly every observant Jew who dies of the coronavirus is taken to a room like this one. Located in a Borough Park funeral home, the room has tile flooring and an in-ground drain, a metal table, and a mikvah that resembles a large concrete bathtub with an electrical hoist overhead. There are paragraphs of Hebrew text on the walls, and the shelves carry cotton swabs and bottles of alcohol alongside plastic packets containing earth from Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, the traditional future site of the messianic resurrection of the dead. Now that funerals can no longer be held as normal, now that Kaddish can’t always be said at someone’s grave, the tahara, or cleansing of a corpse before burial, is one of the final Jewish death rituals that continues in some recognizable and oddly reassuring form.
During a tahara, the body, called a niftar in Hebrew, is first placed on the ground; three prayers are said before it is moved onto the table, where the niftar is washed. The water now contains a disinfectant if the dead is a coronavirus victim. Next is the mikvah, which is now slightly chlorinated.
The niftar is then dressed in white pants, a white shirt, and a white head covering. The dirt from Jerusalem is sprinkled between the body and a final shroud, which encloses the entire niftar. Next the person is placed in a simple and arrestingly featureless wooden box called an aron. The literal meaning of aron is cabinet, though the word has another notable ritual usage: The space where the Torah is kept in a synagogue is called the aron kodesh.
During the pandemic, when the workload has been unending and there is almost no time to spare, the tahara process has taken an average of about 20 minutes, significantly faster than usual. The night I observed at the funeral home, both tahara rooms were in constant use. The taharas were for both the dead and the living: They affirm some core human dignity that everyone shares but that can be perilously notional and intangible even in the best of times, and dangerously easy to lose sight of in the midst of tragedy vast enough to distort the reality of its victims and their pain.
Over the course of an hour, late on a balmy weekday night, three more coronavirus victims arrived through the home’s back entrance, unloaded from vans and cloaked under thick white sheets. These people, whose ages and genders and physical build were impossible to make out, had been alive that same day, perhaps even a few hours earlier.
When a Jewish patient dies in a local hospital, a volunteer organization called Chesed Shel Emes is often the first to be notified. A team of two people—who now arrive dressed in Tyvek suits, goggles, and the full complement of protective equipment—disconnect the patient from any machinery and collect any blood or skin, which have to be buried along with the niftar. They remove intubation tubes and medical stickers. Intravenous lines, which can bleed after death, are now taken out during the tahara rather than at the hospital. “Right now with COVID we try not to play around with the IVs,” said Chaim Tuchinsky, a social worker and Chesed Shel Emes volunteer. A sheet is then placed over the person’s head. Halacha requires that the eyes and mouth be closed and arms and legs straightened—limbs can become stuck in place as rigor mortis sets in. The dead are then taken to the hospital’s morgue until a funeral home can collect them.
There is no bracha for the removal of a body, a task which now has to be performed with great urgency: Chesed Shel Emes must arrive at the hospital before a COVID victim’s body can be moved to a refrigerated truck, which risks dishonor to the dead by Jewish standards and an hourslong retrieval process.
Before the pandemic, when visitors were still allowed into hospitals, Chesed Shel Emes’ removals included one important point of ritual, which contained a painful awareness of death’s soul-wrenching absurdities and embarrassments. “If there’s family there we ask them the name and the parents’ names, and ask them forgiveness for what we’re doing,” said Tuchinsky. But COVID-19 patients die alone. Chesed Shel Emes estimates it has carried out 500 such retrievals in New York hospitals during the epidemic.
By the time I arrived at the funeral home, seven stark wooden boxes were lined up in the front of the chapel. Each had a name written on it; one had a hospital bracelet taped to its top plank. They would begin leaving for burial the next morning; by 10 a.m. they would all be gone. Three aronim were in the nearby hallway next to the tahara rooms. They wouldn’t remain empty for long.
Chesed Shel Emes has conducted an estimated 700 taharas in New York since the outbreak began, equal to roughly 10 months of work during a normal year. They are a fully volunteer organization whose New York vehicle pool consists of a converted pickup truck and a van belonging to Barry Wollner, a quietly decisive and remarkably unstressed younger-looking man from the Satmar community who directs the group’s operations in New York. As Rabbi Benjy Spiro, Chesed Shel Emes’ West Coast coordinator put it, the group’s volunteers had “put their lives on hold” to ensure that every Jewish coronavirus victim is given the respect they deserve.
There had been days of the crisis where Chesed Shel Emes performed as many as 65 taharas at three different funeral homes—Rabbi Meyer Berger, a volunteer in Rockland County, recalled leaving his Seder, joining a tahara, and then returning an hour later to finish the meal. On the night after Shabbat two weeks ago there were 44 coronavirus victims at the Borough Park home who were in need of a tahara.
“After Shabbat is always terrible. You have the whole 24 hours pouring in during the 10 minutes after sundown,” said Rabbi Solomon Feldman, another New York volunteer. The 44 represented nearly 24 straight hours of labor for the home’s on-site coffin builder, who can complete an aron in his workshop on the other side of the loading area in about 30 minutes.
That night there were two Chesed Shel Emes teams working at the funeral home, conducting taharas in full-body, yellow Tyvek suits. “If you’re in one of these for five minutes you’re sweating,” said Wollner. “They’re in the suits for five, six, seven hours doing one after the other after the other after the other.”
A tahara is usually conducted as close to a person’s burial as possible rather than the night before, but the virus works on no one’s schedule. “It works on the malach hamavus,” said Wollner, referring to the angel of death. “We don’t want to wait for the morning because we don’t know what morning’s going to bring us.”
The women’s team, operating with no leeway whatsoever, has alternated between just four and six total volunteers, who looked energetic and undefeated after days of nonstop, intimate contact with the dead. At the funeral home, the men’s team, which now pulls from a pool of around 50 volunteers, down from 500 regulars who are available during more normal times, consisted almost entirely of people in their 20s and 30s. There were a couple of black-coat Haredim and a couple of Yiddish-speakers in secular street clothes, one of whom had a forked beard and a baseball cap and resembled a heavy-metal bassist. One was a real estate developer; one wore a sweater from Hatzalah, the volunteer ambulance service. “We have the rich and the poor,” someone remarked. A passerby out for a late-night walk wouldn’t have been able to guess at what these men had been doing and seeing for the previous three weeks. They took a smoke break as decompressing and as laid back as any construction worker’s or fry cook’s, only this one was shorter, the cigarettes gone almost as soon as they’d been lit. There were more taharas to do.
“What was a tahara like?” I asked, immediately realizing what a vague and unanswerable question I’d posed. “He’s asking what a tahara’s like,” the metal bassist repeated, rightfully stumped. “Every tahara is a different story,” a volunteer told me later—“the process is the same but with every tahara sometimes there are things you have to do and don’t have to do.”
There were stories behind everything Chesed Shel Emes did. One volunteer said that the previous Shabbat he had removed a coronavirus patient whose hospital roommate said he wanted to learn the person’s Hebrew name in order to recite Kaddish for him over the following year. Subsequent investigation revealed that the dead man had spent much of his life in the Soviet Union, where he had organized clandestine Jewish burials at great personal risk. Then there was a Holocaust survivor who had died of coronavirus and whose grandchildren ensured that she received a tahara, even though she was lying in a funeral home with no tahara room. A woman who volunteered for Chesed Shel Emes quickly trained a few of the deceased’s female relatives, and the group conducted a tahara using a portable kit.
There were stories behind every person, but it was important for the volunteers to only know a small number of them. Their mitzvah is made possible through an inner distance, especially now that it has to be performed at such a ghastly scale. Honoring the dead means acting with a focus that sadness or horror can’t disturb. The dead cannot lose their reality, but they also cannot become an unbearable weight on the spirit, or else the work becomes impossible. The holiness of their act comes from not knowing who it is they are serving, and from an impulse of sacred duty to a total stranger that is itself protection against despair.
“Nobody is paying you back for it,” said Tuchinsky, “and half of the time you’re caring for people where you’re never going to meet the family, you’re never going to know who they are or what they are. But you’re showing that respect to them, in their last moments of being on this world. It’s something you can’t even explain. You feel great at the end of the day.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.