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Facing Impermanence

June 11, 2007

From Velveteen Rabbi, April 13, 2005

The call came as I was nursing a mug of tea. The woman on the other end of the phone — I’ll call her D — is a fellow congregant at CBI. We’re both poets, both interested in midrash, so we’ve moved in similar circles for years, though I wouldn’t call us close. She and her husband run our chevra kadisha, the group of volunteers which mindfully prepares the bodies of those who have died for burial. They’re always looking for volunteers, and at my first synagogue board meeting Jeff urged us to consider joining them. He observed that in our tradition this is the most sacred work one can do, a final act of respect towards someone who cannot conceivably repay it.

At the time, I was oddly tempted to volunteer. Though I’m comfortable with impermanence in theory, in practice it’s difficult for me, and meeting death face-to-face seems like a way of accustoming myself to the koan that lives end. What does it mean to be embodied, yet more than our bodies? What becomes of us when our bodies die? What does it mean to be holy in the face of finality and loss? These are some of the biggest questions I know, and serving on the chevra kadisha seemed like an opportunity to learn. But in the end, I didn’t offer my assistance. I wasn’t sure I was ready. I wasn’t sure I had time. I let my excuses get in the way.

Until yesterday morning, when the phone rang. An elderly lady in our congregation had died, and D was looking for volunteers to help prepare her body, at 5:30, right after work. No time to equivocate, no time to postpone. Help was needed that same day. I heard myself ask calmly how long the process usually takes; I reminded D that I’ve never done this before so I would need to be talked through it; and then I said I’d meet her at the funeral home. I hung up the phone not quite believing the conversation had been real. How on earth would I get any work done, knowing that at the end of my workday I was going to have my first encounter with death?

***

We’re in the middle of a pair of Torah portions which focus on questions of taharah and tumah. After D called I wondered whether God was chuckling at my earnest attempt to come to grips with these issues. “Nu, you want to delve into the nature of purity and impurity?” S/He seemed to be asking. “I’ll give you some taharah to wrestle with!” It’s one thing to contemplate why the Torah tells us that touching a corpse makes one tamei but the act of preparing a dead body for burial is the ultimate act of taharah; it’s another thing to face that reality in an embodied way.

I spent a while surfing the internet, reading the surprising number of essays written about performing taharah. My favorite was by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell, published in Reform Judaism in 2001. It’s called Final Touches, and it’s by turns funny and poignant. (Also excellent, though less personal and more intellectual, is Catherine Madsen’s Love Songs to the Dead, which uses the psalms and prayers recited during taharah as a jumping-off-point for exploring liturgy’s power and what it derives from.)

More than once, during the day, I felt glad that I had woken up early to davven the morning service. I began yesterday wrapped in my prayer shawl and tefillin, asserting my intention to spend the day mindful and thankful, awake and alive. It seemed likely that I would need that grounding as evening approached.

For a woman of thirty, I’m absurdly fortunate. I’ve lost grandparents, but I’ve never had to deal directly with death that came as a shock or seemed profoundly unfair. And until last fall, when my husband’s grandmother passed away, I had never actually seen a dead body. Jewish tradition teaches that the body of someone who has died must be treated like the sacred vessel that it has been, and pre-funeral practices grow out of the principle of kavod ha-meit, honoring the dead. The neshama, the soul, is believed to linger near the body until interment, and our process of taharah would prepare the body for burial and reassure the soul that its work here is done. Would I be able to face the shell which had once housed a human being?

***

When evening came, four volunteers were present. All of us are on the synagogue’s religion committee, so we’ve worked together before. We began in the funeral home parlor, perched on a pair of sofas, reading psalms to center ourselves. We prayed that we might see God reflected in the face of the meit, the person whose body we were about to prepare, and also in each others’ faces as we joined in this work. “I’m glad you’re here,” D said as we headed down the stairs to the workroom, and I felt a wash of gladness, too.

The steps of the process are simple. Wash hands (thrice each, as in any ritual hand-washing) and don gloves and aprons. Say a prayer asking the meit to forgive you for any inadvertant offenses or missteps committed during the taharah. Wash the body lovingly with warm cloths. De-glove. Ritually wash hands again, glove up again, and (since we have no mikveh to immerse her in) wash the body with a constant stream of poured water (nine kavim, or three buckets full), repeating, “tehorah hee” (“She is pure”) together. Dry her. Dress her in handstitched white linen: trousers, an undershirt, an overshirt, a tie around the waist. Sprinkle sand from the Mount of Olives on her eyes, then don the facecloth and bonnet. Tie every set of strings so that the loops form a letter shin, representing Shaddai, a name of God. Place her in a simple pine box, on a white linen sheet, and wrap the sheet over her before closing the box.

I felt strangely calm throughout. It was strange, seeing a body with no soul in it; stranger still to wash her, an act that seemed impossibly intimate; but I was okay. I felt an outpouring of tenderness, occasionally giving in to the impulse to stroke her hair or her arm, thinking, “it’s okay, dear. We’re here. You’re okay.” Now and again my mind supplied me with moments of irreverence, as when I glanced into the coffin (which must contain nothing artificial, so it was lined with fine curly wood shavings) and thought of the straw nests in which etrogim
are shipped from Israel. The four of us moved around the steel gurney like a team of surgeons, handing each other washcloths and towels, turning her body to wash and dry what we couldn’t easily reach. Her hands were clenched but her feet were beautiful, and her round belly. I wondered if she had borne children.

Jewish burial garments are the same for everyone, a reflection of our fundamental equality in the eyes of God. The trousers are sewn shut at the bottom, so they concealed her feet; the sleeves of the shirts were long enough to wrap over the tips of her fingers. The sand we trickled onto her eyelids was pale and golden, and somehow that was the moment when the irreversibility of the process hit me. It reminded me of the morning blessing praising God Who removes sleep from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids. Some say the Jerusalem sand is used so that the first thing she “sees” in the World to Come will be the soil of the holy land, but to me it felt like we were providing the flipside to that morning blessing. In this embodied life we thank God for opening our eyes; now we were marking the closing of her physical eyes. Maybe her neshama no longer needed eyes to see.

We placed a linen cloth over her face, and tied the bonnet on, and then she was a bundled white human-shaped figure: no features, no distinguishing marks, only legs and arms, a torso and a head, a small still white figure. A little awkwardly we lifted her and placed her atop the white sheet we had laid over the plain pine box, and wrapped the sheet over her, and then, suddenly, out of the blue, I was shaking with silent tears. I leaned on the edge of the coffin of a woman I had never known, and understood what we had done for her, and wept and wept.

My three chevre clustered around me and hugged me. We maintained the silence we had held throughout (we spoke only when we needed cues for lifting or moving her, and when we were taking turns pouring the unceasing stream of water that sufficed in place of mikvah immersion), and after a few minutes I stood straight and peeled off my gloves and apron, and we closed the box, and we hugged again, and then we walked away.

Tying the special shin-shaped knot was tricky (only one of we four had any facility with it). As we left the funeral home, one of my fellow chevra members — a young great-grandmother, but older than me by a long shot — turned to me and said, “When it’s me on that table, don’t worry about the knots!” We laughed, then, all four of us, and even though my face was still wet I felt good. Amazingly it was still light out when we left the funeral home (only an hour and a half had passed) and I felt dazed, a little giddy, as I headed towards my car. The evening was still and luminous, just barely warm enough for birdsong.

***

I can’t say I came away understanding life and death. I can’t say it was easy. But it seems right that we do this for one another. At Jewish funerals, mourners cast at least a symbolic handful of dirt onto the coffin: a final task we can perform for each other, a way of showing that we take care of our own, a way of reaching closure. Being a part of the chevra kadisha is like that, just a lot more intense. We rely on each other, in the end.

Incarnation is a mystery. What we are, how we can be simultaneously holy-and-embodied (I thank God every morning for the miracle of my body) and holy-beyond-our-bodies (I thank God every morning for my neshama, my soul, calling it pure in the exact same words the members of a chevra kadisha will someday use to sanctify my body), is not something I can intellectually understand. But I know that I want to honor the whole journey, and that birth and death are points of contact with this great thing I cannot entirely grasp.

Death scares me. Not that I will someday die, but that those I love will die, that I will lose access to the people who shape my world. And I will. We all do. And that’s okay, it’s the rules of the game. Even now people mourn the woman whose body I washed and dressed and blessed last night, and in performing this mitzvah I connected myself with all of her mourners. With everyone doing those tasks all around the world. With the people who washed and shrouded the bodies of my ancestors, and the people who will sanctify the bodies of my children.

As a poet I fear the lapse from sentiment into sentimentality, and I’m not sure how to talk about this without sliding into cliché. Clearly this had a strong impact on me; I dreamed last night that I was back in the basement room of the funeral home again today, preparing to do this duty again. (The dream depicted an impossible situation: a mixed-gender chevra, which included a young male Buddhist monk in burgundy and saffron robes. Make of that what you will.) But here’s what I know: there is nothing scary about touching a dead body. Doing so is human, and comforting, and sad.

It’s good that D’s call came out of the blue. I didn’t have time to dream up excuses, or to second-guess my assent. I was needed, and I stepped up, and the experience was deep enough that it kept me in the moment. And now I know that I can do this. It’s strange and difficult, but it’s also powerful. We’re a small community; we celebrate a lot more simchas than we do losses. But I’m a part of my synagogue’s chevra kadisha now. It’s like being on a volunteer fire department. I don’t have to be there every week, it’s not a regular part of my life. But next time the need arises, they can call on me. And now when I pray the words of the amidah which praise God Who keeps faith with us beyond life and beyond death, they’ll mean something new to me. I’m not sure I understand them, but that’s okay.

by Rachel Barenblat

  1. June 13, 2007 at 3:35 am

    I came here from Marja-Leena’s. Very moving, fascinating, reassuring. Thank you.
    (Are you really only 30?!)

  2. June 15, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    Hi Lucy — Thanks for the comment! I was thirty when I wrote this piece; these days I’m 32. :-) I’ll take your response as a compliment, anyway.

  3. August 27, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    It’s an honor to see this piece reposted here, in qarrtsiluni’s new home…

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