by Andrea Sommerstein

Reprinted with permission from "The Jewish Observer, March 1997"
Published by Agudath Israel of America, New York

The workings of the Chevra Kaddisha (1) are generally shrouded, if you will, in mystery. Even when one participates in a tahara (2), the customs understandably evoke an aura of other-worldliness, explained most fully, perhaps, by the Kabbalists.(3) One Sabbath lunch, a friend spoke briefly about her role as a member of the Chevra Kaddisha. I was impressed and a bit in awe, finding it hard to imagine preparing the deceased for their final home.

I had forgotten that at that Sabbath lunch I'd expressed interest in observing a tahara, so when I got the call it was a bit of a shock. I decided, however, that since this was such an important mitzvah, I would explore it. From the sidelines. The friend who had originally piqued my interest about the Chevra Kaddisha picked me up a few hours after I'd received the invitation. She told me that, really, nothing was expected of me. I could participate if I wanted, or not.

When we got to the Memorial Chapel, I retreated a bit into myself -- my father had passed away only a few months earlier. We did not walk into the chapel as I had expected, but downstairs where apparently the tahara would be performed. There, in a little corridor, I was told to don two aprons, a pair of rubber boots, and two pairs of rubber gloves. Four other women and I, reading from a faded sheet attached to the wall, prayed that G-d help us perform this deed with the right intentions.

Somewhat nervous and certainly somber, I walked into a large tiled, open, well-lit room. There lay a stilled Jewess, completely swaddled in sheets. This was Sarah the daughter of Avraham. Sarah's bed was a spotless white metal gurney, waist high, the foot of which was slightly angled over a porcelain trough built into the floor.

The leader of our "team" began by uttering the only conversation I was to hear for the next hour and a half. "Sarah the daughter of Avraham, please forgive us if anything we do as part of the work of the Chevra offends your dignity." She then carefully cut away Sarah's wrappings in silence. Two others mutely inspected the body as her swaddling fell away... the only sounds were the clip of scissors, and the whispered prayers of the fourth Chevra volunteer.

I was afraid to look at Sarah's face, but my eyes were drawn to her. I never saw her fully, as care was taken to keep her face covered with a white cloth. Later I learned that although the eyes of the dead cannot see, exposure of the face (the most revealing part of a person) is a source of great embarrassment to the soul. The soul itself is said to hover about the body in confusion and pain until burial is completed. The silence, now broken only by splashes of water as the women gently and methodically cleansed Sarah, was in deference to her soul, and a tribute to the holiness of the task at hand.

The leader then asked me, through sign language, if I would care to remove Sarah's nail polish. (The deceased must return to its source with as few obstructions as possible.) "No way!" I thought as my head independently nodded yes. My throat had gone dry. This would be the first time I'd ever touched someone who was not living. But I was distracted from panic as I walked to the end of the table to accept the acetate-saturated cloth. Why had the leader not passed it to me directly across the gurney instead of having me walk out of my way? I did not know then that it is an insult to hand articles over the deceased as if the deceased were just a "thing." Therefore any exchange of objects is conducted beyond the deceased.

I took Sarah's right hand gingerly into my left hand, surprised at the strength and the cool. Small, they were locked in a graceful curve. My timorousness was replaced with what I can describe only as a caring wonder. What had she done with these hands? Had she cooked for her husband and children? Played with grandchildren? Written letters? Books? Played piano? Had she erred with these hands? With my own right hand I daubed the pink away, feeling a warmth for this stranger whose face I could only glimpse. I also felt a deep sense of privilege that would recur each time I would prepare a Jewish woman for her final journey.

The cleansing of Sarah's body was performed piecemeal. Only the section being washed was exposed; all else was kept covered by a white sheet. Care was taken to save for inclusion in the casket any cloth that had absorbed even a hint of blood. The final tahara--an immersion in water--was performed quickly. One of the women immediately shook out a fresh sheet and covered Sarah with it.

The dressing process was very beautiful. Sarah was shrouded in an immaculate white bonnet, pants, undershirt and overshirt, secured at the knees, waist and collar with three loop bows. The loops represent the tines of the Hebrew letter Shin--the first letter of one Name of G-d. One team member saw to it that the bows lay flat and pretty, while the others offered a poignant supplication in Yiddish that Sarah the daughter of Avraham remember her status as a Yiddishe tochter (Jewish daughter), and that she recall her Hebrew name while on her final course.

When Sarah was placed in the casket, she looked clean, warm and cared for. After the casket was closed and a candle lit, we gathered around and asked for pardon had any of the preparations been performed without the respect due her as a Jewish daughter. We offered our hopes that any debt of pain or suffering had been paid in the world of the living, and that her journey to the Next World be only one of reward. Moved, I felt at that moment tremendous pride and love of being Jewish, a bond with these women of the Chevra Kaddisha (4), and less afraid, somehow, of the passage of death.


(1)Chevra Kaddisha or holy society is a loosely structured organization of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of Jews are prepared for burial according to Halacha and are protected from desecration, willful or not, unitl burial. From time immermorial it has been the duty of every Jew to bury his dead properly, according to certain rules. Two of the main requirements are the showing of proper respect for a corpse, and the ritual cleansing of the body and subsequent dressing for burial. ("Of Home and Heart" - Mesorah Publications - 1993)

(2) The ritual preparation and purification of the Jewish deceased for burial.

(3) Each Society, as a rule, incorporates many of its own customs.

(4) To learn more about the meaning and simple beauty of a Jewish burial, its customs and laws, you may write for information from the Jewish Burial Society at 85-18 117th Street, Richmond Hill, NY 11418.

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