I should have known better. Attending any event at my temple was likely to pull me into some new assignment or responsibility. I am a sucker for a soft-spoken plea and have an inordinate need to be needed. How else would a nice Catholic girl converted to Judaism become a member of the Education Committee, then a teacher, then the Hebrew School principal AND Sisterhood president at a small Conservative congregation? I can’t say no: Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt are a lethal combination.
Even so, when the unofficial matriarch of our congregation mentioned at a Sisterhood meeting that new members were needed for the Chevra Kadisha, I hesitated. I had studied Judaism in college and then again when I converted; I had been raised in the midst of an active Jewish community in my small northern New York hometown, so I knew that some members of each congregation helped with preparation of the dead. What they did and how it was done was a mystery, even though some men, still unknown to me, had performed these ancient rituals for my young husband, gone so many years now. But, guilt niggled at my reserve when she told me and my stalwart friend that only she and another, even older, woman were providing this service now. She worried about passing on their knowledge to younger women in the congregation. At the time, I wasn’t young. I was fast approaching 50 and my friend was a bit older than me. But from the older woman’s standpoint, we were veritable children.
She explained that there were two aspects of the Chevra Kadisha: one was the preparation of the body, tahara, and the other was staying with the body until the funeral service. I admit to cringing a bit at the notion of “preparing” a body. But, because I had been with my husband and my father in the final moments of their lives and shortly thereafter, I didn’t think I would have a problem staying with the deceased. As a former Catholic, I had been to enough wakes that the sight or nearness of a dead body no longer bothered me as it had when I was young. I nudged my friend and said that we could surely sit together, with a coffin for a few hours now and then. What could it hurt? She looked at me skeptically, having been sucked into some of my more ambitious plans before. But, being a good friend and a good woman, she gamely agreed that she could be called upon as well.
I didn’t really think of it again for some time, the obligations of daily life requiring most of my concentration. So when I received the call from the matriarch, I thought that she was going to ask me to make sandwiches for Bingo. When she explained that she needed me and my friend to meet her at the local funeral home as part of the Chevra Kadisha, I was taken aback. Who had died? It was not until that moment that the realization hit me that a number of our congregants are much older than me. Which one of these kind and generous women had passed away? I was relieved to learn that the lady in question was quite old and had resided in a nursing home for some time; I had never met her. I agreed to meet at the funeral home that evening. The next call was from my friend. What had we gotten ourselves into?
Little did we know. We drove together to the funeral home in Saratoga Springs on a dark and rainy night in late October. The irony of being with a dead person that close to Halloween did not escape us and we made nervous jokes about ghosts and cemeteries as we headed up the Northway.
The matriarch is a kind woman, a very observant Jew, with a great sense of humor. Thank God, because she needed all three qualities to initiate us into the ranks of the Chevra Kadisha. Especially with other member of the Chevra Kadisha present. This woman was older than the matriarch and obviously had extensive knowledge not only of Judaism in general but of each and every aspect of each and every ritual. She was intimidating, but the matriarch was not easily cowed.
We entered through the back of the funeral home. It was cold and dusty, the area where the hearses park. Balanced forlornly on a wheeled table was a plain pine coffin. An unfinished pine box really. There was a little excelsior in the bottom and some holes drilled. The coffins are to reflect no indication of wealth and are to enable the remains to return to the earth as quickly as possible. There are no nails and no metal handles for the same reason. Wait. The coffin was empty. Who were we sitting with?
Through a narrow doorway, we could see the body of the lady, draped in a white cloth. A cold tremor, like the finger of Death, sneaked down my back. My friend and I cast one of those wide-eyed “what-the-hell-were-we-thinking” glances at each other. The older ladies handed us plastic aprons and latex gloves. Before we had time to protest, they were leading us in prayer. The prayer was on poster board, swathed in plastic. How many other women had said this prayer before us? We prayed that God would help us perform the deed with the right intentions. What intentions? We had planned to sit quietly through the night, watching over the deceased, already in her coffin. We had not planned on this! We were led into the small room. It must be the room used by the undertaker to embalm non-Jewish bodies, because there was a metal table, a drain beneath it centered in the ceramic tile floor and a large sink with faucets and hoses. And there was equipment. I looked away.
We prayed again, entreating God to forgive the deceased and to welcome her into Heaven. That prayer and all the ones that followed were written in someone’s long ago hand, faded blue cursive on plastic-wrapped poster board. My job was to hold up each prayer to be recited and then to move that poster board to the back of the pile. My hands shook, the letters wavering as if written on water.
The ritual first involves cleaning the body, trimming nails, and then rinsing the body with a continuous flow of water. In other times, that meant two women pouring from pitchers that were continually refilled by other women. Now, a hose kept up a continuous flow, while we poured water over and over the body. Throughout, the older woman was efficient and silent. The matriarch was gentle and murmured to the deceased woman, apologizing for an awkward movement. She reminisced about card games the lady had hosted at the temple, sharing quiet stories about how beautifully this woman always dressed, what gorgeous hair she had, how everyone had always wanted to sit by her because she was the most fun. With each of her words, I felt a sense of loss at not having known the deceased, a vibrant loving woman now reduced to a frail, almost weightless vestige of herself.
We then dressed her in the burial garb. Made of pure white cotton or linen, her final garments were not the fashionable silks and satins she had worn to weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Ritual requires that every woman returns to her Maker in white trousers with the hems sewn shut, a white tunic, and a white over-tunic with the sleeves tied shut, like booties and mittens. The pieces have no buttons or zippers; they are closed with drawstrings, twisted to form the three branches of the Hebrew letter shin, the first letter of one name for God, El Shaddai. After that came the bonnet and the apron. I balked at the apron and muttered, “What? We have to wait on them in Heaven, too?” I immediately covered my mouth at my lack of respect at such a solemn time. The words had just slipped out. Then I saw the smile in the matriarch’s eyes as she replied, “No, it’s for modesty. Like the bonnet.” I glanced at my friend; a small smirk was playing across her lips. Our eyes met with the mutual promise: I will not put an apron or a bonnet on you when your time comes.
Our silent lady had been so cold when we started but now she was warm and dry. All that was left was to move her to the coffin. We wheeled the plain pine box in from the garage and positioned it next to the table. The room was narrow and the gurney the coffin rode on was hard to maneuver. The matriarch was adjusting the table when she hit the wrong lever and the table tilted. My friend caught the lady in her arms as we all rushed the table. There was silence and then the matriarch murmured to the lady her apologies at our clumsiness. We gently eased her into the coffin and wrapped her in the white linen shroud, covering her face at last. A small cloth bag, like a pillow, containing some of the dirt from Israel that had been sprinkled in the coffin, was placed under her head. We pushed the coffin back into the garage and put the lid on, carefully aligning the wooden pegs with the holes. We said the final prayers and stripped off the wet aprons and gloves. The older women thanked us and we left.
Outside, it was raining, the sky cloudy and starless on this late October evening. We were cold and damp and tired. We looked at each other, silently communicating our awe at all that we had witnessed and done. I would like to be able to say that we felt the grace of God surround us as we solemnly acknowledged the mysteries of the universe. But, no. We collapsed in helpless giggles, holding onto each other as waves of laughter swept through us. It was the near hysterical laughter of people who had come close to death. It was the giggle of female friends who have shared an experience that no one, not even themselves, would ever believe. It was the humor that humans rely upon to remind themselves that they are still alive.
It was a long time before we could speak to each other of our experience without giggling, without reiterating our promise that there was no way we were going to be buried in aprons, without gasping at our almost unforgivable breach of etiquette in almost dropping the deceased. It was a long time and a few more taharas before we could speak about the profoundness of our shared experience, before we came to understand why participating in Chevra Kadisha is the greatest mitzvah, good deed, a Jew can perform. It is a gift that the recipient cannot acknowledge, a gift for which she can never offer her gratitude. The only thanks can come from G-d.