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Jewish Death Practices:
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Dead and Alive



Performing tahara prompts a rush of emotion, not unlike the veiling of a bride. Death too is a beginning.

"Just whatever you do, don't die here," Jonathan said, the trace of a smile crossing his face. My friend spoke half in jest, but only half.

It had only been a few months since my husband and I moved to Dallas from New York, where we had spent the previous seven years while he was in rabbinical school preparing for ordination. I had always fancied myself more worldly and a bit more open-minded than my counter-parts in the yeshiva community, but no amount of reading, watching movies, or vicarious living could have prepared me for what I encountered when I left the East Coast. Ten years later I was to say, "I was born and bred in Brooklyn, but I grew up in Dallas." But that is a different story. For now, ours was the newest family in town, and I was growing accustomed to a very different kind of Jewishness, filled with colorful characters and burdened with issues that I had never before considered, let alone confronted.

 Jonathan and Ruth were my first and best friends in Dallas. They had come over the night we moved in, offering bread and salt. "Pessie," my husband had called, his voice rising at the end of every phrase. "We have visitors. They brought us a present."

 "I hope it's a plunger," I had responded, in an imitation of his intonation. It some-times occurs to me that my gift for mimicry might have been a factor in the untimely demise of my marriage, but that, too, is another story. I heard Ruth and Jonathan laugh, and I knew instantly that our friendship was sealed. Nonetheless, one could not imagine as odd a pair of couples as the Aaronsons and the Novicks. Ruth and Jonathan were newly Orthodox; she, in fact, was a convert. They had met in college and were real '60’s people, liberal in their politics and staunch in their ideals. Jonathan became frum (strictly Orthodox) when he was a student at Albert Einstein College, and Ruth was at once his inspiration and support, just as she eventually became mine. I, on the other hand, was "establishment frum" (or as we say now, FFB -- frum from birth), the only daughter of loving and indulgent parents. I had never known anyone quite like Ruth, so filled with common sense and compassion and so very unspoiled. There was nothing pampered about my wonderful new friend, a fact that filled me with admiration and not a little shame.

We were sitting in my living room, discussing, of all things, the state of the local chevra kadisha (i.e., burial society literally, fellowship of sanctity), not exactly the sort of conversation that one would associate with a gathering of friends. But this was Dallas, and all things Jewish were fair game for table talk, including those institutions that one neither speaks nor thinks about. Ruth and Jonathan were heavily involved in chevra kadisha work as well as the building of a synagogue, the workings of a day school, and the founding of a high school.

"What's the problem?" I asked, all innocence. "I mean, I hadn't planned on dying just yet, but ..."

"Well," Ruth responded, "first you have to make sure the funeral parlor will cooperate"

"O.K., but by now at least one of them should be ready to oblige."

"Yes, but they don't like it. The bigger problem is getting people to volunteer, and the biggest problem is working with the ones you get."

"But it's such a big mitzvah. Surely people want to be involved in the one act of pure giving, the highest form of kindness?”

"Well, imagine if you will, being at a tahara (ritual cleansing and preparation of the deceased) with women who exchange recipes while they work."

'Yeah," Jonathan chimed in, "or with men who exchange the worst sort of jokes..."

"Spare me," I said, interrupting him. I did not want to think about the nature of the jokes or comments that my friends had apparently heard. "But why would people act this way?"

"It's hard for them to cope," Ruth responded, ever the social worker. "This way, they can take their mind off what they're doing and the fact that one day someone will have to do the same thing for them."

“Well then, they shouldn't do it at all if they're not up to it," I said emphatically and not without self-righteousness. "After all, the point is to do this for the sake of the mitzvah and because you realize that one day it will have to be done for you."

Actually I was talking out of my hat-or my headcovering. At the tender age of 28, I had never spent a thought on chevra kadisha work. It was not something they had taught us about in school, nor was it something my parents had ever discussed. I don't know if I had ever been curious about the topic, but I had begun to view so many issues differently since my move, and now I had one more item to add to my list. I knew, in theory, that this was an important mitzvah, an act of pure and unselfish kindness, but was I ready to roll up my sleeves and participate? I was not at all sure and just as happy not to have to find out.

Imagine, then, my feelings when Ruth called the following Sunday. Her voice was quiet and very serious.

"Pessie? Sam Goodstein's mother died."

"Oh ... baruch Dayan Emet (Blessed is the Righteous Judge).

"Pessie, we need someone to help with the tahara. Are you available?"

 Am I available? Oh my gosh, no! I mean, I'm too young. I can't deal with death close up, I can't even look at road kill without feeling ill.

 I heard myself say, "Well gee, Ruth, I mean, I don't have any experience. I don't know the laws. I... Isn't there anyone more experienced available?"

"Well, I was only able to get one other woman, and we really need four, but... you know, Mrs. Goodstein was observant, and Sam wants someone frum. But if you really can’t ...”

How could I possibly say that I really couldn't? Why couldn't I? Because I was frightened? Of what? Because it might not be pleasant? Didn't I believe in the mitzvah I would be doing? And anyway, how could I possibly face Ruth-who I was quite certain, would think nothing of performing a tahara single-handedly, if such a thing were humanly possible-and tell her I was too delicate, too pampered, too likely to be grossed out?

"No, of course not, Ruth. Of course I'll do it. You'll pick me up?"

"Sure, kid." Her voice rang with reassurance and approval. I felt as though I had passed a very important test. For a moment I forgot to be afraid, but just for a moment.

Ruth picked me up in her big yellow van. This was in the days before minivans, and the thought of a woman driving a van was about as foreign to me as the thought of a woman driving a truck. But this was Ruth, and as I have implied before, I still had a great deal to learn. Ruth drove us around to the back of the funeral home, where we were greeted by one of the owners, who led us to a small room. I drew a deep breath as we entered. The third member of our chevra kadisha was already waiting for us. She was about Ruth's age, which is to say she must have been about ten years older than I-at a time when ten years constituted more than a third of my life. She was pretty and lively and wore a scarf over her curly auburn hair. Somehow, she did not fit my preconceived notion of what a chevra kadisha volunteer would look like, but then again, neither did I. I stepped across the threshold into a small, harshly lit room, its air heavy with the mingled odors of chemicals and what I recognized at once as the distinct smell of death - not a pleasant sensation, nor one I was likely to forget. I found myself thinking, "So that's why people must have begun bringing flowers to funerals." I shook off the thought, however, deeming them only slightly less inappropriate than the recipes and jokes that Ruth and Jonathan had referred to. I was there, after all, to do a job, not to devise hypotheses.

Mrs. Goodstein's body lay on a slanted table, draped in a sheet. We washed our hands. Several pairs of surgical gloves had been left for us. Ruth did not put hers on, so neither did I. She carefully undraped Mrs. Goodstein's face, and for the first time in my 28 years of existence, I saw Death. I had not known Mrs. Goodstein in life and was taken aback by the reality of her death, by the waxiness of her complexion, the stiffness of her limbs, and the scent of decay that will forever define my memory of this experience. I took comfort in the fact that Jewish law required she be tended to at once so her memory would be spared those elements of indignity that are part and parcel of mortality. I was relieved that only the three of us would see her in this state, almost as though we shared a secret with Mrs. Goodstein, one that we would keep forever, reverently and lovingly.

Carefully and quietly we washed her hair, her face, and her body, turning her gently as needed. We worked quickly, making every attempt to preserve her dignity by keeping her covered as much as we could, shielding the privacy that Mrs. Goodstein had cherished in life. Our silence spoke eloquently of our sorrow, and of our hopes for the neshama (soul) of the departed, who was, by now, far away from this small room and its harsh fluorescent light. What light was her neshama enjoying? We could only ponder ... every now and then Ruth would turn to me and say, "Are you OK, kid?" and I would simply nod, not quite able to speak but not quite sure why this was so. Once clean, the body was immersed in water, and I thought of the life-affirming waters of the mikvah (ritual bath) and realized that what we were doing was no less life-affirming.

The time had come to dress her in her takhrikhim (shrouds). I had neither seen nor imagined what these might look like, but they were simple, beautiful, and not terribly frightening. We covered Mrs. Goodstein's head and face with a white hood, the front of which resembled a veil.  At once, I felt a rush of emotion not unlike that which overcomes me when I witness the veiling of the bride at a wedding. For just as the joy of a wedding may be said to hold a subtle touch of sorrow as one contemplates the enormity of the future that lies ahead of the bride and groom, here too, my sorrow held a touch of joy for the soul that had gone to greet its reward. This, too, was a beginning, a normal and natural process that seals the mystery that is life.

As though she heard my thoughts, the third member of our chevra kadisha sighed and said, "She looks just like a bride." We said goodbye as we had worked, silently and with glazed eyes.

We left the funeral home through the front door, walking past the undertaker in his proper black suit and carnation, past the polished mahogany pews, and out the heavy wooden doors. Ruth drove me home without saying a word, but the experience that we had shared forged a bond of love between us. I knew Ruth would do no less for me and I would never have a better friend.