An excerpt from This Jewish Life by Debra Darvick
The Story of Kathryn Engber
There is always some kind of mystical connection when we close the door to the men outside, and I realize once again that we are more than just the sum of the individual women present. Our reader begins the blessings that will be recited throughout the entire process, and as I listen to her, I feel as I do each time we begin our preparations—that God is in the room, that God is in our hearts, guiding our hands, assuring that our touch is gentle, elevating our work out of the profane into the realm of the sacred.
“Master of the Universe! Have compassion for Joyce/Zer’el this daughter of Lily/Leah Chana, for this deceased, for she is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. May her soul and spirit rest with the righteous, for You are He who revives the dead and brings death to the living.”
Not everyone perceives that they are capable of doing the sacred work of the Chevra Kedisha, the Jewish burial society, but when my rabbi asked me if I would consider learning these ancient procedures, I sensed that it was something I could do. I’ve always chosen things that are a bit outside the lines of tradition. I am a strong feminist; I’ve worked in what has historically been a male-dominated industry. Honoring the rabbi’s request just seemed to fit with who I was. I became one of five women in the small Wisconsin city where we live who are on call to prepare our community’s female dead for burial.
Although we five are from all walks of life, we are all mothers. This common thread frames our approach to our sacred responsibility—we have all done the intimate hands-on care of children. Preparing the deceased for burial brings us back to that time in our lives when we were involved in the intimate physical care of someone who couldn’t care for herself, who couldn’t thank us yet needed our ministrations all the same. I didn’t know that is what I would draw on when I first went to Minneapolis to be trained, but I now realize that we all feel quite strongly the link between the care we gave our infants and the care we give the deceased, the meit. When you care for a newborn, you want each touch to be done with love; you want your child exposed to everything soft and gentle. That is also the sensation we want to come to the meit through our hands.
I am usually the first to go into the room; this is my role and I want to be sure that nothing will go awry. I make sure we have everything we will need—buckets and pitchers for water; tachrichim, the garments we will use to clothe the meit; strips of linen for washing; natural-fiber boards for taharah, the ritual purification; earth from Israel to place in the casket. Then, when we are all assembled, we take turns washing our hands—pouring water first on the right hand, then on the left, three times, until we are ready to begin.
Blessed are You who pardons and forgives the sins and trespasses of the dead of Your people, Israel, upon petition. Therefore, may it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, to bring a circle of angels of mercy before the deceased, for she is Your maidservant, daughter of Your maidservant.
The mood in the room is solemn, of course, but it is also filled with love. We are keenly aware that the meit has a family in mourning and they may be worried about the treatment she is getting; we want it to be the best that it can be. We strive to maintain a high level of modesty for her as we begin our washing. First the entire head, then the neck, the right arm down, including the hand. We often talk as women do to children: “Now we are washing your left arm, now we are washing the upper part of your body, your back.”
Our communication focuses on what is happening in the room, and often someone has a memory of the meit, or we remember something she particularly loved doing. We are a circle validating this woman’s life, and we keep that in mind as we clean her and ready her for the ritual immersion.
The first time I worked with the Chevra Kedisha in Minneapolis I was scared, but I really wanted to perform the procedure for a woman I had cared about so much. I found that once you start the process, you put yourself aside and focus on what you are doing and there you go. You forget where you are and just move forward.
“And I will pour upon you pure water and you will be purified of all your defilements and from all of your abominations I will purify you.”
The taharah that we perform is not done in the traditional sense—standing the meit upright and pouring the required 24 quarts of cold water over her. Instead we place her on several natural-fiber boards that lift her off the table. The boards’ absorbency assure she will be surrounded by water. The water has to be poured from our buckets in a continuous stream over the body, and while we are pouring we recite, “t’hora hee, t’hora hee, t’hora hee,” she is pure, she is pure, she is pure. We make sure the water touches every part of her body before we dry her and ready the tachrichim, the set of burial shrouds.
When we were first trained, there were quite a few deaths in our community all at once. We never want to perform another taharah, but we are prepared for the moment when we’re needed. I look at Judaism as living in tension between two endpoints. For every issue there are two extremes; you have to find the path between the extremes.
The hardest part of all comes after we’ve dressed the meit, after we’ve laced the bonnet over her hair and face and put on and tied the pants and the blouse, winding a band once around the waist and twisting its ends four times to represent “Dalet,” the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. We’ve placed the kittel, a robe-like garment, on the meit, wrapped a sash around the kittel, and tied it with three loops to form the letter “Shin.” The meit herself represents the letter “Yod.” In essence, the entire body spells out shaddai—Shin, Dalet, Yod—and thus is dedicated to God. We’ve recited, “v’El Shaddai yitein lachem rachamim,” and May God give you mercy, and it is time to wrap the meit in the sovev—a sheet that I think of as swaddling—before tucking her into the casket. It is the very last thing we can do for her, and it is very hard to let go and close her in. It is a moment of great sadness for all of us. Sometimes, when the meit is a particularly good friend of one of us, this final act is shadowed by even greater emotion. As we close the casket, we ask forgiveness from the meit for any roughness or inadvertent mistakes we may have committed.
I don’t find this distasteful at all. It is meaningful. It’s wrong that American culture alienates us from death. You can’t begin to understand death when it is so far removed from you. I think it is the genius of Judaism to have developed this ritual to such a degree that it is respectful of both life and death.
Being a part of the Chevra Kedisha has made me appreciate life so very much more. We all know that life can end at any time, but you can’t live your life fearing death. You square up with death and return to living your life. But I tell you, when there’s a simcha, a celebration, I really, really have a good time. In life you get X number of ceremonies. One is definitely a funeral, but there are simchas, too. And by gosh, I enjoy myself when they come around.
The next stage has to happen—that of handing the meit over to her family and setting the whole painful mourning process in motion. But we know we have laid her to rest in honor; at her most vulnerable time she was not with strangers, but with her own. It is comforting to me to know that when my time comes, I will be in the care of my friends; my children will know I was treated with respect and care during the final stage of my physical existence.
After the meit is taken from us, we wash a third and final time and hold hands in a circle for a few moments and think once again about this loving act we have just performed. We thank God and thank one another and talk about the emotions we have felt. Sometimes our hands offer consolation as well as the affirmation that we have just completed Judaism’s highest mitzvah.
We stand in awe of having witnessed once more Judaism’s logic and genius, realizing that those who were created in the image of God will now live on in memory. And then, with one last squeeze of our hands, we open the door and depart into that tension between life and death, going our separate ways, until the next time.
For He will give His angels charge over you to watch you in all your paths … no evil shall befall you nor shall any plague come near your tent. The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is His name. The Lord will fight for you and you shall hold your peace. Amen.
This story is a section from my book, This Jewish Life. The book contains more personal stories like this one. Fifty-four voices enable readers to experience a calendar’s worth of Judaism’s strengths — community, healing, transformation of the human spirit, and the influence of the Divine. This Jewish Life is a year in the life of a contemporary Jew told by a variety of individuals.
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