What I’ve Learned About Life Preparing Jewish Bodies For Death
It’s a crisp autumn day in Madison, Wisconsin, and I’m running late for a meeting with a dead person.
I volunteer with my congregation’s Chevra Kadisha, a group that helps prepare Jewish bodies for burial and ensures that every congregant has company from the moment they’ve passed away until the last clump of dirt covers their coffin. I currently serve on the board of directors of the Jewish Burial Association of Madison. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I worked for its Chevra Kadisha as a secretary in one of its not-for-profit funeral homes. Through the years, I’ve become very acquainted with the physical and spiritual preparations that Jews go through after death.
On this particular afternoon, I was running late for my shift as a shomer, a guardian, for one of the congregants at my synagogue. I had gone to the wrong funeral home. Ten minutes ago, I was supposed to have relieved my friend Deborah from her duties.
When I finally arrived, she’s patiently waiting at the back door of the funeral home. Deborah lets me into the building, leads me downstairs to the basement and shows me the walk-in refrigerator where the deceased is resting.
As we go inside, she gestures at the sheet-draped body. The first part of a shomer’s job is keeping watch over the body and helping the recently departed’s soul rise to new heights.
The tradition of the shomer began long before funeral homes with walk-in refrigerators came to be. Back in those days, the role of the shomer was to chase away wild animals that might desecrate the deceased’s body. I’m not really cut out to chase away wild animals, so I’m grateful that this part of the tradition has lapsed.
Today, the shomer’s job is mostly spiritual: To keep the soul of the deceased company as it makes a transition from the body to whatever realm we believe in. It’s a gradual transition, and reading from Psalms is supposed to comfort the soul of the deceased and let the soul know its Jewish community is in solidarity with it.
And so, Deborah and I adjourn to an adjacent room that’s comfortably furnished with club chairs and couches. This is where I’m supposed to read Tehillim, the Psalms.
As I begin to do so, in this comfortable room without Wi-Fi or cell phone reception, my thoughts drift to other experiences I’ve had with Jewish traditions and death.
Images start coming to mind: A bucket of water and roll of paper towels on the front porch of a home after the burial, set out for those visiting the Mourners who will wash their hands before entering the home to make their shiva call.
A house in which every mirror is covered with sheets, because we shouldn’t be thinking of ourselves.
A living room filled with sturdy cardboard boxes for the bereaved to sit on, because we shouldn’t get too comfortable.
The smell of plain pine coffins.
Cutting the tzitzit off of a deceased person’s tallit, because now he or she is released from performing the mitzvot.
A family split between burying the deceased in her tallit, as is customary, or keeping it as a family heirloom so the grandchildren can use it atop their chuppah (wedding canopy) when they marry.
Explaining to a doctor that we need a death certificate now, not two days from now, because it is our custom to bury the dead as quickly as we can.
My in-laws’ Talmudic debates over whether to order kosher or glatt kosher catering for a shiva call.
My friend at a graveside, using an upside-down shovel to cover the casket with dirt. Why upside down? Because this shouldn’t be easy.
I think about what will happen soon: The taharah, the ritual washing of the deceased’s body.
It’s intense. The hospital doesn’t remove the tubes running in and out of the body, and these must go. Wounds are closed with liquid bandages. Anything with blood on it must be put inside the coffin, to be buried with the deceased. The body will have to be stood up so that water can be continuously poured over it from head to foot.
Almost thirty years ago in Brooklyn, my wife’s fraternal grandmother passed away.
She was a tough woman from Galicia who knew half a dozen languages and changed from one to another quickly and constantly. When I knew her, she was sinking ever more deeply into dementia.
I remember the rainy autumn day of her funeral. By the time we reached her grave, only the immediate family and my father-in-law’s “Conservadox” rabbi remained.
The rabbi led the graveside service, but when he reached kaddish, he wouldn’t say the prayer, because we didn’t have a minyan. He wouldn’t count my wife, sister-in-law and mother-in-law towards the minyan, and he was the type of rabbi who wouldn’t bend the rules.
The rabbi announced that the service was over and we all slogged through the mud and rain back to the shelter of the waiting limos — everyone except my wife’s uncle. Through the rain-streaked window of the limo, I watched him pray the familiar kaddish prayer intensely.
I felt that I had failed a character test. I knew that I should be by his side, repeating those ancient words, bowing to the left, bowing to the right and taking three steps back.
Maybe, according to the Conservadox rabbi, the prayer wouldn’t count. But praying it was an act of love and faith, and there couldn’t be anything wrong about that.
Ten years ago in Fort Smith, Arkansas, I helped my father, a Christian, die.
It was a long, hard death, and I had been living in his hospital room for two weeks.
At last, the doctor ordered a bottle of morphine to be added to his IV.
And that was it.
I needed a break, so I took a long, hot shower, donned some semi-fresh clothes and went for a short walk outside to prepare myself for the coming days.
Instead of thinking about my father, I wallowed in self-pity and grief.
I thought about my upcoming mourning and how I would observe it. I thought about saying Kaddish and wondering who the heck in Fort Smith, Arkansas would stand to recite it with me.
I was walking through a cemetery that’s just across the street from the hospital, carefully walking between the graves and feeling terribly alone.
I was looking down at my feet, taking one step after another.
After a bit more of this, I decided to look up at the inscription of the tombstone next to me.
To my infinite surprise, it was in Hebrew. So were the inscriptions to the right and to the left.
I looked around some more and concluded that I must be in the Jewish section of the cemetery surrounded by Jewish graves, some of them one hundred years old. I started to put rocks on the markers, as is our tradition, and then I realized: Here was my minyan.
How these intrepid Jews ever got to Fort Smith, Arkansas — and why they decided to live and die there — was beyond my ken. But here they were, and they would be my minyan.
After my father died, my wife and two daughters arrived, and we said kaddish beside my father’s grave. Of course, we weren’t reciting kaddish because he wanted or understood it: We were thinking of ourselves and our mourning, and doing what Jews do when someone they love is buried.
The mitzvah of Livayat HaMet, accompanying the dead to their final resting place, is one of the holiest of the mitzvot: It is seen as a truly selfless act because the favor can never be returned.
Back at the funeral home in Madison, Solomon arrives right on time to relieve me. We descended the stairs to the basement.
I lead him to the walk-in refrigerator. We walked inside, and I gesture at the body of our fellow congregant. Solomon wants to see her face, to better know who he’ll be guarding for the next four hours.
Together, we pull down the sheet, and I noticed something I hadn’t seen upon my cursory inspection when I started my shift.
The deceased has beautiful hair.
I didn’t know that, or anything about her, as I was reading Tehillim to her and wandering around in my memories.
Knowing this small fact probably would have made a difference, would have helped me focus on the work of being her shomer.
In this particular way, and probably in several other ways, I had failed.
But Judaism is a long and winding story in which there’s always room for collective and personal self-improvement.
Next time, I’ll be a little bit better.