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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29 Responses

  1. Holy Hyrax says:

    Very meaningful post. One of the best ever.

  2. mb says:

    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.

  3. ja says:

    tizki limitzvot

  4. Gershon Seif says:

    Thank you for sharing that.

  5. Ahron says:

    A beautiful posting, thank you.

  6. ralphie says:

    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?

  7. Ezzie says:

    Beautiful and sad post.

  8. Toby Katz says:

    I would like to thank everyone who wrote for their kind words about this post.

    In answer to Ralphie:
    We roll the table over to the mikva and then slip a board under the body, on the table — the kind of board that fire rescue or Hatzala uses to carry a person who can’t walk. Then we have an electric hoist with straps that go under the board, and that machine lifts the board with the body on it up off the table — over the mikva — then the machine lowers the board into the water — and since bodies tend to float, we manually push the body under. We then use the hoist to lift the board up out of the water again, and cover the body with a clean sheet — this is all done expeditiously, she is not left uncovered out of the water for more than a few seconds.

    When it is time to put the person in the casket, the casket is on a frame with wheels so we roll it next to the table on which the body is lying (after the lady has been dressed). We don’t use a hoist for this but manually move the lady from the table into the casket. There are four of us, three on the left side of the table (one at her head, one at her feet, one in the middle) and one next to the casket (which is always on her right). That last person leans over the casket to reach the body. It’s hard to describe but we usually manage it pretty smoothly, everyone lifting and moving the body at once. We try not to drop her into the casket but to lower her in gently.

    Once she is in we make sure the shrouds are neat, that her arms are straight by her sides and so on. We put the sovev (the winding sheet) in the casket before we put the body in, and once the body is in, we wrap it in that sovev, left side, feet, right side, head last, sort of like wrapping a package, but everything is really very gentle and careful. Maybe I should say it’s like wrapping a baby in a swaddling blanket. The last thing we do is put the cover on the casket and ask for forgiveness. I should have mentioned in my post that there are certain prayers that are said at every stage of the cleaning, immersion, and dressing. The whole process beginning to end takes about an hour and a half or two hours. (Men’s taharos take less time on average, about an hour, maybe because the men are stronger and can move the body from side to side for washing, dressing etc more easily.)

    There are a lot of variables that I didn’t go into. For example, if the person has blood flowing, we don’t put her in the mikva because we don’t want to lose any blood. There’s another way to do the tahara, by pouring buckets of clean water over her instead of using the mikva, while keeping the problematic area covered so the blood doesn’t get washed away.

    Maybe I’ve given you more information than you wanted to know, but anyone who is considering joining the chevra kadisha should come and watch a tahara and see that it might be something you really can do.

  9. Bernice Victor Smith says:

    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 to any tahara.

    I am honored that you have shared so much with us and pleased that you are able to be included in such precious moments for loved ones. Thank you for sharing. BVS

  10. bvw says:

    “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, expressing my understanding that a body is not a pollutant. “The embalming fluid,” he explained. If the body is kept more than 12 hours before burial, state law (NJ) requires that it be embalmed with the amount of fluid set by weight and volume.

  11. Toby Katz says:

    I don’t know what Orthodox Jews do in New Jersey but the halacha does not allow embalming. In order to embalm a corpse you have to drain out the blood and replace it with embalming fluid. Draining out the blood is definitely not permitted in Jewish law.

  12. ralphie says:

    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.

  13. Saul Mashbaum says:

    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.

  14. Ori Pomerantz says:

    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.

  15. Toby Katz says:

    Ori — this may surprise you but sugar is a preservative. If anything it might well delay the decomposition of the body. Or it might attract small animals and insects, but it would not attract microbes. Honey does not spoil nor does sugar — too sweet for microbes’ taste.

    BTW it seems that a body does not always decompose — one hears stories of a tzaddik’s grave being dug up for some reason or another, sometimes decades (centuries?) after burial, and finding that the body is intact. I don’t know whether or not these stories are to be taken with a grain of salt. I once read an article in Discover magazine that gave a technical, scientific reason why some bodies might not decompose — but I don’t remember what it was. In any case, we let nature take its course, hence linen shrouds and wooden caskets — and the holes that allow contact with the earth. (In Israel they don’t use caskets but bury people without them). We do not try to interfere, either to speed up or to retard the normal course.

    Ralphie — you spoke of rats — the holes we drill are much too small to allow rodents to enter the casket, but I have heard that one of the reasons to have a shomer with the body up until burial takes place is to guard against rodents. I don’t believe rodents can get into a casket by gnawing through the wood. Concret vaults are not natural — they don’t “feel” Jewish to me — but that’s just my subjective feeling.

  16. Toby Katz says:

    To Bernice Victor Smith — I am honored that you wrote to me and very moved to hear from someone who knew my father zt’l. My memories of Newport News — from when I was a little girl — are precious and vivid. I know that many of the people from that shul kept in touch with my parents for decades after we moved away. Thank you so much for writing.

  17. Michael Kopinsky says:

    Wonderful post!!!

  18. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) says:

    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 the Torah warns us to keep so absolutely distinct.

  19. Southern Belle says:

    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?

  20. Holy Hyrax says:

    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.

  21. mb says:

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

  22. Toby Katz says:

    To Southern Belle — thank you for your kind words. I had the same question that you ask. A corpse imparts tumah–impurity–to anyone who touches it, how can it be purified? The answer I received was that there are different kinds of tumah (and therefore different kinds of taharah). For the purpose of going to the Bais Hamikdash and bringing offerings there, anyone who has touched a dead body has to be purified but we don’t have the “ashes of a red heifer” anymore — needed for that type of purification. We will have it again when we have the Bais Hamikdash again.

    The tumah that comes with the “minor death” of menstruation affects a woman’s ability to be with her husband. A woman who touches a corpse can’t go to the Temple/Bais Hamikdash but she CAN be with her husband. A kohen is not allowed to touch a corpse and therefore not allowed to do taharos but a kohen’s wife is — I asked, because my husband is a kohen. It doesn’t affect relations between a husband and a wife, as I said.

    The purification done for a deceased person in a tahara affects that person’s future at the time of techiyas hameisim — the resurrection of the dead — when Moshiach comes. Which makes it really a kabbalistic/mystical thing, somewhat obscure to us.

  23. Toby Katz says:

    To Holy Hyrax — vaults are not required in Florida. I find it hard to imagine that they are required by law in any state — they are so expensive, and non-biodegradable.

    To mb — rats are omnivores.

    To Steg — doing shemira is a not so much a matter of being “that close to death” as you put it, but that close to life, i.e., to eternal life. The body is dead but the neshama is still there, the body decomposes and decays but the neshama never does. Hence the need for shemira (guarding the body until burial) and tahara — the neshama would feel intensely lonely and abandoned if we did not do these things for the person after death. The neshama does not immediately leave the vicinity of the body — according to Jewish tradition — but remains nearby for the first three days or until burial.

  24. mb says:

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

  25. Rachel says:

    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.

  26. 4jkb4ia says:

    Beautiful post.

  27. Leapale says:

    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.

  28. Tobie says:

    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.

  29. Rucha Baumann says:

    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 metahair (the ritual preparation worker) is the recipient of the chessed, is the recipient of this greater awareness of the truth of what life is all about.

    Also, dealing with death often leaves people feeling helpless and hopeless. But being involved with this preparation helps me feel like there is something I can do about death, something to help, something that makes a difference.
    It’s almost therapeutic.

    Thanks again for sharing this inspiring experience with others. May we share in many special mitzvos together.
    Tizku L’mitzvos indeed!


    P.S. I think they use concrete containers/liners (not vaults) in Miami because the water level is so close to the surface. This way, with earth inside the container, it’s like burial in the ground and at the same time protects the casket (and body) from water damage. Admittedly, not a first best situation.

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