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Jewish Death Practices:
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Rituals of Remembrance - Reform Judaism Magazine - Spring 2001
Washing and dressing a corpse (taharah) is considered the ultimate mitzvah,
because the recipient can never acknowledge or repay the act.
By Nancy Kalikow Maxwell
Please put all bodies in head first. Thank you.
Hanging lopsided on the freezer door, this hand-lettered sign is my introduction to a taharah, the Jewish ritual-of washing and dressing a corpse before burial. Traditionally, this mitzvah is performed by members of the chevra kadisha, the community's voluntary burial society. Performing a taharah is considered the ultimate mitzvah because the recipient can never acknowledge or repay the act.
Right now, mitzvah is the furthest thing from my mind. I am shivering in a refrigerated room in local Jewish funeral home, outfitted with protective surgical garb from cap to shoe covering. My heart is racing, and my stomach lurching. Having washed my hands with a two-handled cup, I tug at the two layers of plastic gloves I am required to wear. The thought of what I am about to see and do frighten me. I begin to regret asking for this hands-on experience as part of a graduation course on “Death and Dying.”
To relieve my fear, I remind myself that as a parent of a young child I have prepared plenty of dead bodies for burial. I have wrapped, boxed, buried and flushed deceased cats, parakeets, frogs, and goldfish with only a modicum of squeamishness. Searching for something neutral to focus on, I scan the room, which is filled with a bizarre combination of hospital and kitchen utensils, and, in the center, a body lying on a stretcher. Helen*, an elderly woman, died of natural causes just a few hours earlier. I force my gaze past her to the wall poster of English and Hebrew prayers we will soon recite. Calling on a long-lost skill, I try to read the Hebrew.
The exercise has a strange, calming effect on me. I am transported about forty years back in time; in an instant I am a child of seven, standing with my grandmother during High Holiday services, attempting to read from the siddur. Pleased by my effort, bubbe stops her gentle swaying and sends me an encouraging smile. She tenderly brushes my face. I am calmed by her touch.
Suddenly, I feel a hand on my arm. It is time for the ceremony to begin. Naomi*, the handsome middle-aged woman leading the taharah, directs me to approach the body. “First,” she explains, “we’ll pour water over the mit (corpse). Then we’ll wash her and put her in the mikveh (ritual bath). Next, we’ll dry her, anoint and dress her…” Naomi points to a white shroud folded neatly in an open box. “Please try to handle the body with respect and modesty and don’t talk unless absolutely necessary. Any questions?” I shake my had “no” and gulp.
With the directness of a firm but loving teacher, Naomi bids me to lay my hands on the body. Reluctantly, I place my fingers on the soft, cool sheet. The weight of the flesh underneath feels like cold poultry. "Let's read the first English prayer out loud," says Naomi. It begs forgiveness from the deceased for any mistakes or errors we might make.” Since I am pretty sure that thinking about poultry at a time like this counts as a "mistake or error,” I end my prayer with a silent apology.
After pouring water over the body, Naomi hands me a washcloth. "Start at the shoulder and work your way down the arm like this." Wetting her cloth, she begins washing the head and neck. Every swish of the cloth announces the reverence and respect she feels for this task.
Following Naomi's lead, I dribble drops of warm water and begin rubbing the skin in wide rhythmic circles. "Just call me the ‘Taharah Kid,’” I joke with myself, as I wash with the slow brushing strokes of the young acolyte in the movie Karate Kid. Slowly and methodically, I work my way down from the shoulder. Drench and wash, drench and wash, drench and wash. The slow, repeated actions bring me to a peaceful, almost hypnotic state.
From the far reaches of my subconscious, I hear the tune "Hine Matov U’manayim,” and my hand starts to move in time from Helen's shoulder to her arm. I see my grandmother’s, arms, loose and flabby, preparing a bowl of fresh strawberries. I always marveled how bubbe could mover her massive arms with the grace of an orchestra conductor, lifting a strawberry, removing its stem, putting it down, and taking another – all in one fluid motion.
I wonder if someone washed bubbe’s arm like this when she died twelve years ago. From bubbe my thoughts move to her bubbe, and to her bubbe, and then to all the bubbes who have washed and been washed by Jewish women just like me. Suddenly, I am part of the permanence of the Jewish people who have performed this ritual for centuries. With an incredible clarity, I now realize how all Jews – past, present, and future - were with Moses when he brought the Torah down the mountain. All the generations are here with me now in taharah.
My entrance into this surreal world is interrupted by the feel of a bottle of nail polish remover against my skin. Naomi is tapping my arm with it, trying to get my attention. “Take this,” she whispers insistently, “and remove all the nail polish.” I grasp Helene’s gnarled, arthritic hand and prepare to swab the first nail. Suddenly I feel Helen squeezing my hand! I jerked my hand back, and her arm drops with a thud. Naomi pretends not to notice and continues with her own ministration. I take a few deep breaths and struggle to regain my composure. I grasp the hand again, more firmly this time. I tell myself it must have been a postmortem muscle spasm. Or could it be that Helen was trying to communicate with me?
Naomi interrupts again. “It’s time for the mikveh.”
Unlike the hypnotic motions of washing the body, this task involves the use of elaborate hydraulic equipment to raise the body- stretcher and all- into the mikveh. We position ourselves around the stretch. Naomi pushed the button and elevated the stretcher. Distracted by the thought of Helen communicating with me, I neglect to steady the dangling platform. The end of the stretcher nearest me tilts down. Oh no! The body begins to slide. Naomi lurches forward and grabs my end of the body. With a few quick button pushes, she averts disaster, leveling the suspended stretcher. My embarrassment takes much longer to level off.
After immersing the body in the mikveh and reciting the appropriate blessing, the stretcher is raised and returned to the floor. We then pat the body dry with a sheet provided for this purpose. "Now for the dressing," Naomi says as she unfolds a kittel (over-shirt) from the tahrihim, the set of plain linen garments that constitute a Jew's burial clothes. "Everyone gets this same outfit," she explains, "to show we are all the same in the sight of God. We are also going to anoint her ears, eyes, mouth, navel, and hands with this" -she holds up a dish with a beaten egg mixture-"which symbolizes the perpetual wheel of life. We also sprinkle this earth from Israel on her." I peer into the small pouch she is holding and discover the "earth" is actually sand. "And we cover her eyes with these…” She displays what looks like the pieces of a dropped coffee mug. "It is broken pottery to show that the vessel of her soul is now broken.
"Let's get started..."
Once the dressing and anointing are completed, we offer the concluding prayer, another opportunity to request forgiveness for any errors we might have committed in the taharah. We wheel the body into the freezer-head first, as the sign requests. Though the ceremony has taken less than one hour, I am exhausted, but strangely exhilarated as well. I feel proud, satisfied, and more intimately connected to my Jewish roots than ever before. Deep in my kishkes, I know I have performed a mitzvah for Helen, for my bubbe, for all bubbes, and for the Jewish people.
"I’ll do another taharah if you need me," I say to Naomi, surprised at my own words. Naomi does not appear at all surprised; she simply smiles and nods. I return the smile, and as I do, I imagine a similar smile forming on Helen's face-and then an even wider one cross my bubbe's
The Taharah Ceremony
The biblical basis of taharah is found in Ecclesiastes 5:14, which reads, "he must depart, just as he came." Since one is washed at birth, it is interpreted, so one should be washed at death.
Most of the details of the taharah ceremony originated in the Kabbalah around the eleventh to thirteenth century. The sixteenth century Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) includes instructions such as: "The purification of the body is done as follows: the entire body, including the head, is washed with warm water: The Fingers and the toes, as well as all the other parts of the body, should be thoroughly cleansed" (Code of Jewish Law, Annotated Rev. Ed., Vol.4, NY: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1963).
The tradition of using volunteers in burial societies is several centuries old. In Eastern Europe, burial society membership was the highest honor that could be bestowed on a Jew, but the distinction gradually lost its significance around the turn of the century, as most non-Orthodox Jews in America began to leave the burial preparation of their deceased to funeral directors.
Orthodox Jews still maintain voluntary burial societies in most major metropolitan areas. Several liberal congregations have formed such groups, though, according to Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, director of the UAHC Department of Religious Living, the exact number is not known. Arthur (Asquare) Adintuck, who investigated the matter for Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, found that "four or five Reform congregations in the Boston area alone" have or are planning chevra kadisha. Some Reform congregations have performed taharahs, among them Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC; B'nai Sholom Congregation in Bristol, TN; and Adath B'nai Israel in Evansville, IN; but most liberal groups focus on the mourner, providing meals of condolence, shivah assistance, and-as Alintuck describes it-'just sitting and talking." Nancy Luberoff of Judea Reform says the reason more taharahs are not performed is ignorance. "It was one of the babies that was thrown out with the bath water," she says. "Now we are sifting through that bath water and picking out the important pieces." As she sees it, "taharah is just one example of a tradition, like so many others, being reclaimed by Reform Jews."
*All the names in the article have been changed to protect anonymity.
Nancy Kalikow Maxwell is the library director at Barry University in Miami Shores, FL and award-winning writer. Her latest work, “A Feminist Perspective on Jewish Death Rituals,” will appear in the forthcoming book Considering Religious Tradition in Bioethics: Christian and Jewish Voices, to be published by the University of Scranton Press.