Preparing for Jewish burial — the 7th of Adar


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.

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Rucha Baumann
9 years 8 months ago

Beautiful entry, gratifying discussion. You have ably and movingly presented the experience.

May I add, that doing taharos has helped me have a strong, concrete sense of Olam Haboh. One can really sense, as you portrayed, that we have prepared this lady for her continuting journey. She is like a pretty package, prepared for something coming next. And it gives one such a strong feeling of what really matters. I once heard
Rabbi Michel Twerski say that there’s another interpretation of chessed shel emes (a true altuistic kindness). He said that the… Read more »

9 years 8 months ago

I just wanted to thank you for this beautiful post. My mother has been a member of the Chevra Kadisha for a number of years now, and, although she has descibed some of the process, this post gave me even more love and respect for the job that she does. Thank you, as well, on behalf of all the people in the communities whom the Chevra Kadisha serves, for performing this difficult, but holy and necessary task.

9 years 8 months ago

As a cohen, you introduced me to world I (hopefully) will never know, at least as a participant.

I’ve always admired the Chevra Kadisha volunteers.

9 years 8 months ago

Beautiful post.

9 years 8 months ago

Thank you for this post. I’m not a regular reader of this blog, but followed a link here, and am glad that I did. I joined my shul’s chevra kadisha about a year ago, and wrote an essay for Velveteen Rabbi about my first experience with this kind of taharah; I’m always moved when I read people’s descriptions of this important and meaningful work.

9 years 8 months ago

I hope you get this published. And definitely not just in Orthodox journals.

9 years 8 months ago

Why would rats be a problem? AFIK rats are herbivores.

Holy Hyrax
9 years 8 months ago

Concret vaults are not natural—they don’t “feel” Jewish to me—but that’s just my subjective feeling.

I agree, but don’t all states require that. I have been to funerals in Los Angeles, and Nevada, and both had vaults.

Southern Belle
9 years 8 months ago

Your post was so moving and most eloquent. My grandmother was part of the Chevra and I always admired her for that, as she had no formal religious training.

Could you explain how the Mikveh purifies the body? I always thought that a meis was the biggest source of teuma, so how could it ever be tahor?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)
9 years 8 months ago

Beautiful description of the tahara process! I remember in college the first time that i ever did shemira; it was a very (if not too) moving experience, and somewhat spooky as well. Not that i thought it would come alive and eat me, or some similar horror-movie scenario would occur — it was just something about being that close to death that set me on edge. I’ve always admired the hhevra qadisha members, especially in small communities where every death is someone they know personally, for being able to handle that psychologically-dangerous boundary between life and death that… Read more »

Michael Kopinsky
9 years 8 months ago

Wonderful post!!!

Ori Pomerantz
9 years 8 months ago

Note: this comment is somewhat graphic and arguably disrespectful. May I suggest that people who are easily offended by biological detail don’t read it? If you have read it found it offensive, I apologize.

If the faster the body decomposes the better, why not bury the body with molasses or some other sugar? That will encourage the microbes that return the body to the earth.

Saul Mashbaum
9 years 8 months ago

It’s not even close. In my opinion, this moving posting is far and away both the best-written and the most religiously significant contribution you have made to this forum.

You skillfully imparted to your piece the aura of dignity you apparently bring to the difficult task you describe.

It is surely a great merit to the departed to be treated with the kindness and sensitivity that you and your colleagues show, as you descibed here. May all of you be blessed for these activities. Indeed, tizku l’mitzvot.

9 years 8 months ago

In Los Angeles they use concrete vaults as well – the vaults have small holes drilled throughout them. I heard it had something to do with rats… yeechh.

9 years 8 months ago

“We drill holes in the bottom of the casket so that her body can decompose quickly and mingle with the earth underneath.”
I attended the burial of my wife’s aunt last week, and noticed that the casket was placed inside a concrete vault with a concrete top. There was dirt in the vault and around the casket and we covered the casket with shovelfuls of dirt before the gravediggers put the vault top on. I asked the undertaker why a vault was used, and he said that state law required it for environmental reasons. I asked why,… Read more »

Bernice Victor Smith
9 years 8 months ago

Thank you for such a wonderful article – Toby…I am a fourth generation member of Adath Jeshurun in Newport News, Virginia so I remember your father. My father was head of the Cheva
as was my grandmother and my daughter has helped out also. I am pleased that you follow so many of the “rules” as I learned them – the members here (the ladies) have for the most part gotten away from so much that should be done as they consider much of it as “local customs” therefore, I am not included in many of the calls… Read more »

9 years 8 months ago

Beautiful and sad post.

9 years 8 months ago

Sorry to take away from the beauty of this post by asking a technical question, but how do you get the body into and out of the mikvah? Or should I just read the book?

9 years 8 months ago

A beautiful posting, thank you.

Gershon Seif
9 years 8 months ago

Thank you for sharing that.

9 years 8 months ago

tizki limitzvot

9 years 8 months ago

This was extraodinarily beautiful. Thank you.

Adar 7th is the banquet/honouring/fund raising day for many Chevra Kadishas, as a memorial to their “day off”, so to speak.

Holy Hyrax
9 years 8 months ago

Very meaningful post. One of the best ever.