Preparing My Friend’s Mother for Burial.
I wasn’t prepared for the life-changing experience.
A friend was visiting her ill mother here in Portland, Oregon. She had come to celebrate her mom’s 70th birthday with the family, but her mother died that very day.
That same day I got a call from the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society. They had a sudden death in the Jewish community and needed help with the tahara, the purification of the body before burial. They were short-staffed because one of the main volunteers had broken a finger.
I realized that this tahara must be for my friend’s mom.
As a child growing up in Toronto, my mother volunteered for the Chevra Kadisha but I never really knew what it entailed. I had learnt that this volunteer work is considered the highest form of chesed, (loving-kindness) that one can do for another person. The reason for that is that you could never be paid back in this world. It is an act of giving completely for the sake of giving.
I was hesitant and nervous to help out, but I could not say no – not for this Jewish woman and especially not for my dear friend. I quickly made arrangements and got ready to go, unsure of what to expect. The woman who picked me up had been doing this volunteer job for many years, and I clung to her, asking dozens of questions on the ride to the funeral home.
Nothing could have prepared me. We arrived at the home and rolled up our sleeves. There was work to be done. We needed to prepare the casket, rip out the vinyl lining that was glued to the box, get supplies, fill buckets with water. Despite my uncertainty, I tried to be as helpful as possible.
I paused before entering the room, as if wanting to ask permission from the dead woman first. I felt her soul in the room.
We suited up in hospital gowns and put on gloves. Then I caught a glimpse of the lifeless body in the next room. She was beautiful. I had never before seen a dead body. The last memory I had of being so close to death was when I was 12 years old, crying over the closed casket of my beloved Zaidy Lipa, who would tickle me till i laughed and would sing me Yiddishe songs.
This was so different. This was intense. I paused before entering the room, as if wanting to ask permission from the dead woman first. I felt her soul in the room. I felt her watching me. I felt a wave of fear wash over me. Could I do this?
As the question floated around in my head, I was given more instructions. Before I knew it, I was rushing back and forth, refilling buckets of water and helping the other women wash the body.
We started with the head, washing her hair and rinsing the soap out ever so gently. Each hair that fell out was collected and placed in a linen bag to be buried with the body. Each limb was washed, one at a time, with so much respect and care. The body was covered at all times.
The first time I touched the body was to undo her beautiful necklace. The body felt so strange, cold, stiff, heavy... so lifeless. The necklace was gold and unique, with precious stones and the initials of her three children dangling from it. I thought of the oceans of love this woman must have carried with her for her family throughout her life. I set the necklace aside to return to my friend during shiva the next day.
The tahara process took more than two hours. It entailed propping the body on moistened wooden planks to create a continuous flow, almost like a mikvah, as three of us poured water over from her head to her toes. As we emptied three buckets of water, we chanted “Tehora hee” three times. “She is pure, she is pure, she is pure.” It was other-worldly.
Water was splashing all over but I noticed my face wet with my own tears. I was crying, not out of sadness but out of complete awe. Over the years, I have taken many women to the mikvah. Many brides in the prime of their lives, many women upon returning from an inspiring trip to Israel as they become wanting to observe more, and many returnees to Judaism. I feel so fortunate to help these women transition from one state of spiritual reality to another. Every person is born through water, and we have the ability to continue renewing ourselves through immersing in the mikvah waters as we start each new chapter in our journeys.
The last part of the tahara process was dressing the body in the special tachrichim, shrouds, garments made from simple white linen. There was a bonnet, pants, a tunic, and an overcoat called a kittel. The garments came with many linen ties, and there was a specific way of tying them. She shined in the crisp, white pure linen garments.
I felt an intense sense of peace descend as we finished preparing Penina bat Avraham for burial. After gently moving the body into the wooden box, there was one final step. We took earth from the land of Israel and put it on her eyelids, her mouth, over her heart and body. And last, we placed pieces of broken pottery over her eyes and mouth and then wheeled her out of the room to take her final journey in this world.
There is no part of the body that doesn’t express God’s wisdom and purity.
As I washed my hands and collected my belongings to leave, I felt that somehow my life would never be the same. A certain innocence was gone, but in its place was a deeper understanding of life and death and of Judaism. Jewish law expects us to lead the most noble and dignified lives while in this world. And even in death, we must remember who we are: a noble and kingly nation. Everything was crystal clear to me at that moment. Our bodies are created in the image of God. They are beautiful as they are, precious gifts from God that require tremendous care and love. There is no part of the body that doesn’t express God’s wisdom and purity.
God also gave us an eternal soul, lovingly breathed into us by our Creator. But this precious soul cannot do its work here in this world without the body, and the body cannot exist for even one minute without the partnership of the soul. They are a magnificent and Godly team.
We live in this very materialistic world where the voice of our soul often gets drowned out by the more pressing demands of our bodies. The body constantly needs things – to be fed, nourished, adorned, nurtured, rested, healed, beautified… And the soul? It also has needs. It needs to be connected to its source, to its Creator. It needs another kind of nourishment, a more spiritual one.
The tahara reminded me what it's all about. No one lives forever. The body is only down here temporarily in this world and we all return to the ground eventually. But our souls? They are eternal. I felt this clarity as we prepared the body, the Godly vessel that held a Godly soul. We helped this body so gently and respectfully prepare for its final resting, but the prayers and deep intentions were for her soul which will soar higher and higher in heaven for all eternity.
This article is written in the merit of Penina bat Avraham. May her soul be elevated in heaven.