The body lies on a stainless steel table, draped with a sheet. Together with three other women, I cut away the body bag and hospital clothes, remove bandages, pull out IV lines. We wash the body, the water flowing down the table and out of a hole at the foot of the table, into a steel sink. The room is tiled white, brightly lit, antiseptic. We look like doctors, gowned and gloved, and the room looks like an operating room — except that in one corner there is a mikva.
We work quickly and quietly. Conversation is improper, disrespectful, except for the task at hand. If there is a flow of blood anywhere, we stanch the flow and save the bloody cloths, to be buried with the body. Sometimes the work is tedious and dull. Sometimes there are complications that make things more interesting from a medical point of view — I have a medical curiosity about the cause of death — but complications delay us getting out of there, home to our families.
When the body is clean, we take the woman’s body and we place it in the mikva. We have been careful never to leave her exposed while we were washing and cleaning — always uncovering just a little bit at a time. We take pains to preserve her dignity, because her soul is nearby, watching us, in distress until the burial takes place.
For a moment the body is exposed but it is quickly covered by the purifying waters of the mikva. We four women of the chevra kadisha say, as we put her under the water three times, “Tehora hee, tehora hee, tehora hee” — “She is pure, she is pure, she is pure.” Of course “pure” is not the right word for a religious concept that has nothing to do with cleanliness — she was clean already before we put her in the mikva. Her body is ready now for the Resurrection of the Dead when Moshiach comes.
We cover her again quickly, put the body back on the table, dry it quickly, dress it in white linen shrouds. No one after us will ever see this person again, until Moshiach comes. There is no “viewing of the body” in Judaism — that would be considered a dishonor to the dead. We know that no one will see her, but we take special care with the mitzva anyway. We dress her carefully, we straighten hems and sleeves, we tie the ribbons with special bows, we put her in the casket and wrap her in the sovev — the winding sheet.
We put her name tag that came from the hospital under one of the ribbons of the shrouds and we put another tag on the outside of the casket. We put light-colored soil from Eretz Yisrael in with the body, for every Jew would prefer to be buried in Eretz Yisrael. We drill holes in the bottom of the casket so that her body can decompose quickly and mingle with the earth underneath. We are taught that the soul is distressed by the body’s decomposition and we want to minimize the period of distress.
The chevra kadisha — the “Holy Society” — sometimes paid workers, here in Miami a volunteer organization — we are the people who do this special mitzva, called “chessed shel emes” — “True Kindness” — kindness done to a person who can never thank us, not in this world anyway.
After we have done our work, we address her in Hebrew, using the name she was given at her birth. “Sholom to you, peace to you, Sarah daughter of Avraham. It was our intention — the ladies of this chevra kadisha — to do chessed for you. If G-d forbid we have hurt your honor in any way, or have done anything that was not in accord with halacha, it was unintentional, and please forgive us, and may there be peace on all Israel.”
When my time comes after 120 years, I know what will happen because I’ve done it so many times. I know that the people who will be there in the room with me will be respectful, efficient, serious and kind and will take care of me as a mother takes care of a child.
And that’s how I always think of these women I care for at the very end — as children who are now going to see their loved ones who preceded them into the next world. I picture all their relatives, brothers and sisters and husbands and fathers and — especially — mothers, who will now be reunited with their daughters. Usually these are old ladies — sometimes very old — but the cleaning and dressing are so very reminiscent of cleaning and dressing children. In fact, I could not have done this sometimes dirty and unpleasant work before I had children.
Although the work is sometimes tedious, there is a certain satisfaction in cleaning things up and leaving behind a lady in white, clean and pure, when we close the door. I whisper to the lady before leaving, “Goodbye, go in peace, go to Gan Eden.”
We walk out of the room backwards, not wanting to be rude by turning our backs on her — literally paying our final respects.
Outside in the night air we wash our hands at a pump and wish each other, “Tizku lemitzvos” –“May you merit doing more mitzvos.”
These thoughts are prompted by the fact that today is the seventh day of Adar, which is the yahrzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu. This is considered the special day of the chevra kadisha because Hashem Himself prepared Moshe Rabbeinu for burial and buried him in a place unknown to us. We now — imitatio Dei — strive likewise to do the ultimate chessed for those Jewish women who have gone before us to the next world.
I would like to recommend a really wonderful book on this subject, Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial by Rochel Berman. She is a member of the chevra kadisha of Boca Raton. From the book jacket, here are the words of her rabbi, R’ Kenneth Brander:
“Dignity Beyond Death brings together the voices of ordinary people engaged in an extraordinary task. In its pages we learn about the deep spiritual meaning that Judaism attaches to death and the preparation for burial. The impact of this mitzvah on the volunteer members of the Chevra Kadisha is sensitively rendered in this compelling volume. Rochel Berman continues her acts of loving kindness by sharing this world with all of us.”
PS Please make sure that your children know your Jewish name and the Hebrew name of your father. I feel sad when we cannot address a lady by the name her father gave her in shul, because her children no longer remember it.