Jewish Burial Society Newbie: 3 Bodies, 3 Experiences
These are true stories. My requested anonymity is due to my continued work with my community’s Chevra Kadisha.
I struggled to pull the medical-grade booties over my sneakers. I wasn’t sure if it was because my shoes were too big or because I was consciously trying to keep my hands from shaking. “Nervous” wasn’t quite the word to describe what I was feeling. Jittery, possibly. Spooked, maybe — but not in the Halloween-sense of the word. All I knew is that there was a dead person in the next room waiting for me. This was my first day with the Chevra Kadisha: my Jewish community’s ritual burial society.
“Why did you volunteer for this again?” I asked myself as I pulled a medical mask over my nose and mouth. Despite the cool room, I could feel my hands beginning to sweat inside my rubber gloves. My glasses fogged up from the air coming out of the top of my mask. “Oh, good — maybe I won’t really see anything.”
Walking into the preparation room of the funeral room, the rest of the Chevra Kadisha were busy — laying out tachrichim (traditional burial garments) or filling buckets of water. Due to the smocks and masks, I could only make out these shul regulars by their eyes and voices.
“Hey, nice to see you!” one of the faceless members called in my direction, the way Sheriff Andy would greet Opie in the Mayberry Police Department. Despite there being a body covered with a white sheet on the table in front of me, this didn’t darken the mood of the dutiful team. Unlike other people in the funeral home, this crew was here to work, not to mourn.
After a bit, one of the crew members lifted the sheet from the body with a complete lack of fanfare. I held my breath under my mask in preparation for what I’d see next. Yep, that’s an elderly naked man laying on the table — dead. Being that this would be the very first unmanicured dead person I had seen in person, I took a minute to gauge my own emotions.
After a few moments of getting used to not seeing the rise-and-fall of his chest, I mostly felt one way in that moment: numb. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t sad. While mildly uncomfortable, this was primarily due to the nonchalant nudity. The uneasiness was like that felt upon rounding the corner in a gym locker room to find a naked elderly man drying his hair — feeling weird even though there wasn’t anything to feel weird about.
Being my first tahara (ritual cleansing of the dead) and the group having more than enough volunteers on this particular day, I was asked if I would like to simply observe this time. I obliged, feeling that I would likely get in the way more than be of help. While I would have helped had my assistance been requested, I was secretly joyful that I wouldn’t have to touch the deceased stranger that day.
I observed as the team washed the deceased gentleman followed by a tahara. The ritual purification included water continually poured from a series of buckets. While this happened, another member recited verses in Hebrew from a siddur (prayer book). After being pat-dried with towels, the deceased was carefully slipped into tachrichim — the modest linen burial clothes of more traditional Jews. Strips of fabric were tied around each ankle using a very intentional method. The same method was used to tie up the waist of his pants, the front of the shirt, and the belt around the robe.
The aron, a casket of plain, raw wood was rolled into the preparation room — one free of nails, screws, and anything non-biodegradable. The man was delicately placed into his casket. His tallit (prayer shawl) was draped around his shoulders and a bit of dirt from Israel drizzled onto his chest and his closed eyes. A linen cover was placed over his head and he was wheeled out of the preparation room to have the lid placed on top.
With his hand on the casket, the main organizer looked up at the team there and said, “We did our best, but anything we did wrong, we are sorry.”
While trying to figure out in which order to pull off my disposable protective gear, the main organizer approached me.
“Shall I put you on the roster?”
I gave him my phone number.
“I’ll let you know when we’ll need you.”
“Looking forward to it. I mean…um…” I gagged on my own sentence. The organizer replied with a soft chuckle. He could see my befuddled internal dialogue — trying to balance eager enthusiasm with handling the dead.
As I began to walk for the door, the organizer called back out to me.
“But next time, I’m putting you to work!”
Going home, I didn’t turn on the radio in my car. The world felt a little bit different, but in what way, I couldn’t say. Upon arriving at home, I immediately hopped in the shower, washing off imaginary air I had shared with the deceased. The stale, medical scent of the preparation room was still in my nostrils… or at least in my memory. Looking down at the water running off my own body, I began to see flashes of the naked deceased man laying on the table in my thoughts. Over the next few days, those flashes would remain, but with decreasing intensity.
It felt like just a few days went by before the organizer called me.
“A Mr. (Insert Name Here) has passed away and we need help with the tahara. Are you available?”
“Um, yeah, sure.”
Walking into the preparation room a few days later, deja vu kept a finger lodged in my ribs. Pulling back the sheet, the same discomfort of witnessing deceased elderly nudity floated just on the top of my stomach. This time, fewer crew members were present, meaning I would actually need to become hands-on.
As the crew needed to wash his back, one man pulled the man’s entire torso toward him in a giant utilitarian hug — holding him while others washed. The deceased’s face rested against the smocked shoulder of the member hugging him, like an old buddy being dragged out of a bar after having too much to drink.
“Ok, other side.”
The man standing next to me mirrored the first man, hugging the man to his side of the table so that the other side of his back could be washed. Both of these men seemed completely unnerved that they were giving a wet naked dead man a bear hug. “Man, what pros!” I thought to myself.
As the man hugged the body, one of the deceased’s arms slipped from the man’s grasp and lazily flopped behind the deceased’s back — not a huge deal. However, they couldn’t lay him back down until the arm was moved. Intending to match the professionalism of the huggers, I grabbed the man’s arm and placed it at his side. Though I knew the dead bodies were cold, this was the first time I had ever touched one. The chill of the man’s flesh felt like taking a package of chicken out of the refrigerator. I’m not sure why it surprised me so much, but it was a mental note I’d not soon forget.
The rest of the tahara went about the same as the first one I’d witnessed. The organizer taught myself and another inexperienced member how to tie the tachrichim straps in the traditional fashion. I now think that the other member was more experienced than the organizer had let on, but he didn’t want to make me feel like a newbie in front of the rest of the group. Still, they had all seen me stand at the end of the table just a week ago, politely keeping my hands to myself.
I left that tahara feeling a little more accomplished and that I had aided in that man’s final wishes instead of standing around like a gawker.
Around this same time, my wife and I were parents to a new baby. One evening shortly after that second tahara, my wife and I were giving our beautiful baby a bath. We lovingly placed our bundle of joy on a slanted basket-like washing tub that worked somewhat like a colander sitting in a bucket that drained into our kitchen sink. We gently washed our baby with warm washcloths, shampooing hair, and delicately rinsing with cups of water. While doing this, the mental flashes started again. The elderly naked men laying naked on the table. The poured water. I worked hard to push it out of my mind.
As we wrapped up washing our baby, we started gently patting the soft skin with towels until dry. We put on a fresh diaper and slipped on footie pajamas. Thoughts of patting down the flesh of the dead men flashed in my mind followed by images of tying up their burial garments. Like fighting an ice cream headache, I tried to muscle these thoughts out of my head and focus on my baby.
Once in pajamas, we gently swaddled the baby, placing them in bed for the night. Accompanying these thoughts were images of sliding fully-dressed corpses into their caskets. I had all but given up trying to wring these images out of my head for the night. A few months went by with no call from the Chevra Kadisha organizer. My mind stopped worrying about experiences with dead bodies and went back to being a dad.
Until he called again.
On this occasion, I decided that I’d prefer not to be surprised once the sheet was lifted. Armed with his name, I took to the internet. I quickly found images of the man I was about to help prepare for burial. I learned about his interests, his family, and his love for his community. The more I read, the worse I felt that I hadn’t had a chance to meet him.
Upon arriving at the funeral home, we were met with a bit of warning. Unlike the other elderly men who’d likely died in their sleep, this man had died after an extended stay in the ICU. His body had bruises from tubes and IVs. And he wasn’t that old — only in his mid-60s.
Walking into the room, I decided that, while I was ok with touching the body, I wasn’t quite ready to be a “hugger.” I slipped down to the end of the table, right near the man’s head, which was propped up by a plastic block. Someone needed to hold his head as the “huggers” rolled his body from side to side.
As we got started, I held his head in my hands and slid the plastic block away. Holding his head, I remembered being a child with my dad on Sunday afternoons. We loved watching classic black-and-white movies. Sometimes, I’d sit on the couch while he’d lay down with his head in my lap. It wouldn’t be long before my dad would fall asleep and start snoring. Despite my legs falling asleep, I’d let him rest a bit before trying to exchange my legs for a pillow — much like Indiana Jones replacing a precious artifact with a bag of sand in a booby-trapped jungle shrine.
The man’s head felt like that of my sleeping dad’s. I started to imagine whose lap may have held it while he napped in the past. As the rest of the crew finished washing the man’s back, I gently lowered his head back onto the block — as softly as I had placed my dad’s sleeping head onto a pillow to keep him from waking up.
Washing the rest of the man’s body, mental images started to flash in my mind like the ones I’d had at home. Instead of thinking of dead bodies, thoughts of washing my tiny baby entered my mind. As we carefully patted his body dry, thoughts of patting my baby dry flashed before my eyes, but instead of it being my baby, it was this man… as a baby. Dressing him and placing him in his casket, I started to realize that someone had once put him in pajamas and lovingly tucked him into bed. As we wheeled him out of the preparation room, I remembered the images I had seen of his children and his grandchildren — smiling faces that were now in mourning.
Tearing off my disposable garb with his casket in the corner of the room, I felt grateful that I had been able to help tuck him into an eternal sleep the same way that someone had once tucked him into bed when he was but a baby.
A few weeks later, the organizer called again.
“Yeah, I can be there. What can you tell me about him?”