Before the coronavirus pandemic, Deborah Drillman, 54, was one of 55 women volunteering with the Chevra Kadisha of Queens and Long Island, an organization that prepares deceased people for burial according to Jewish tradition.
Now, as the virus ravages Jewish communities in and around New York City, their work is more necessary than ever. Because families can’t visit their loved ones during the pandemic due to stay-at-home orders and other public health rules, people are dying alone in hospitals and nursing homes — some of them from coronavirus, and many from other causes. Observing the traditional preparations for burial provides a sense of dignity and security that the dying, and their families, desperately need.
But the pandemic has shrunk the number of people who can perform this service. With many volunteers confined to their homes because age or medical conditions put them at high risk for the virus, Drillman’s crew is down to 10 women. Accustomed to volunteering once or twice a week, they now work almost every night, struggling to keep up with the deluge of bodies and adapt the rituals to reduce the risk for those performing them.
The Forward spoke with Drillman about caring for the dead amid a global pandemic worldwide pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Irene Katz Connelly: Chevra kadisha volunteers prepare bodies for burial in a process called tahara. Tell me a little bit about what an ordinary tahara is like.
Deborah Drillman: When a Jewish person dies, they are washed and purified before they’re put into linen shrouds and buried. Men care for men, and women care for women. In a regular tahara, we start by removing any external things the hospital may have put in, like IV needles or feeding tubes. The hospital leaves everything like that [on the body], because everything that has blood on it gets buried with them. Then we clean the body, taking off any nail polish or make-up. Then we do a purification process by immersing the body in a mikvah [or ritual bath]. If there’s no mikvah in the funeral home, there’s a process of pouring water on the body and that does the purification. Then we dress the body in the shrouds: there’s a hood, a shirt, a pair of pants, a tunic, a face cover and a wrap for the entire body. After that we put it in the casket, and we say some prayers.
Before COVID-19, if the deceased woman was very elderly and just died from natural causes, I felt blessed to be part of her journey. But if her life was stunted by the virus, it’s awful.
How did you become involved in your local chevra kadisha?
When my mother-in-law died, I wanted very much to be a part of the process of her leaving this world, and I decided I would learn how to do it. Long Island doesn’t have its own chevra kadisha, but I wanted us to be able do our own people, so to speak. The head rabbi of the Queens chevra kadisha gave a course to a group of women that I put together. And then I did as many [taharas] as I could for the first year, because that’s the only way you can learn. There are so very many laws: for example, there’s a very specific way you tie the pants when you’re dressing the body. You’re only going to learn that by practicing.
What precautions have you had to take because of the coronavirus pandemic?
Well, let me tell you about what we wear. We used to just wear double gloves and a gown. Now we wear double gloves, a gown, a mask and a face shield. It’s very hard to breath under all that, especially if we have to do four, five, six, seven [bodies] at a time. The people who died may not have gone to the hospital because of coronavirus, but many times they ended up contracting it there. We have to presume everyone is positive.
Then, the protocols have changed. We don’t wash anymore, we go straight to purification and dressing. We still take out all the external stuff. Then we skip cleaning, the part where we remove the makeup. We go straight to the purification process, and we use buckets of water for that instead of immersing in the mikvah. If there are a lot of body fluids, we might not even do the purification, we might go straight to dressing. This is all determined by the chevra kadisha’s chief rabbi.
A process that would normally take 45 minutes is now much shorter, because of the possibility of exposure and because there’s a very limited amount of time to [take care of the bodies]. Many members of the chevra kadisha can’t come anymore: Either they’re living with elderly relatives, or they’re too old to be out themselves. And when we’re done, the men have to use the same room.
How does it feel to suddenly be on the front lines of a pandemic?
I am just very grateful that I seem to have some type of immunity. There are so few people able to do it, and I would never want to be in a position where I can’t give these ladies the purification they need. I am just so sad about how much we’re doing, compared to before. We’re used to doing one per night on average. But now, it could be as many as four, and there are even more after the Sabbath when you have a two-day accumulation. We did eight on Saturday night.
Does the task of preparing a body for burial feel more meaningful when many coronavirus victims are dying alone, without family at their side?
It doesn’t change my job. But I cry when I think of a person who is lucid and knows they’re going to be alone through this process. My aunt had this disease, she knew she was dying, and she died alone. I know wives whose husbands are on ventilators, and they cannot go and be with them. They are relying on a nurse who is kind enough to FaceTime. That is the hardest part of this disease.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed?
Oh, for sure. I used to be able to choose when I [volunteered], maybe two or three times a week. Now, I’m going every night because the pool is so small. I can’t say no, because then that person might not get a tahara. I miss dinner with my kids because I’m going out every single night.
Last Thursday night was after a two-day holiday. That was an overwhelming night, that was really horrific. When you go into the fridge to get the bodies and there are two bodies per table because there just isn’t enough room, and you’re digging through bodies to find the one you have to do a tahara for — that’s really tough. Sad and tough.
Do you think that the coronavirus will have lasting effects on Jewish burial practices? Will some people alter the process of tahara, or abandon it altogether?
I really hope not. There’s an organization that I work under, the National Association of Chevra Kadisha, that fights for people to have taharas. We fight for everyone to have this purification, even people who don’t necessarily know about the process. It’s just such an important part of being buried and getting to the place where we think you go next.
Has volunteering with the chevra kadisha shaped your thoughts on where it is we do go next?
Not really. If you’re an Orthodox Jew there’s a certain way you’ve been taught about what happens in the afterlife, and that’s what we believe. My work in chevra kadisha didn’t change that, I just know I’m helping people get to that goal. If you have the right type of Jewish burial, you’re ready for what happens to us in the afterlife.
Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q&A: a chevra kadisha volunteer during coronavirus