I am proud to live here in Willits. In our community, people
participate and help each other in birth, death and other life-
cycle events. I have realized that even if you are a very private
person, as I am, you canít be successful in going through difficult
situations all alone. When I lost my first husband fifteen years
ago, I didnít know how to respond adequately. I found that the
next best thing was to help somebody else. So when Rabbi Margaret
Holub from the Mendocino coast started a group to study the
tradition of the chevra kadisha (holy committee) that performs
(ritual washing and preparation of the body
after death), I was eager to join. We studied and met together
monthly for about a year. I learned many things about this tradition
that goes back thousands of years. For instance, the garments
a person is buried in have the same names and shapes as those
worn by the high priest in the temple in Jerusalem. The only
difference is that a burial shroud is made from simple cotton
In Judaism, there are 613 mitzvot
(good deeds). A tahara
is considered a mitzvah (good
deed). These practices give meaning to my life so much more
than the material things. Doing the mitzvah of the tahara
has been tremendously rewarding. When you receive a phone call
that someone has died, everyday activities cease. Since burial
must take place within twenty-four hours, the implements we
use are stored at someoneís house and available to us when we
need them. When women are doing the tahara
, the men take
care of the practical matters of the burial arrangements.
It is very helpful to have a ritual
to follow when someone dies. It is not generally recommended
that a family member be present at the tahara
of their emotional state, but if they so wish, they are welcome
to participate. I was happy to be the one to lead the tahara
for Zenaís mother, and that Zena joined us in the ceremony when
she felt that calling.
My mother died of lung cancer on October 2, 1997. I remember
a number of things about that time. One was being connected
to a community of women friends and to the feeling of support
I had from them.
My mom died on the morning of the last day of
the Jewish year, Rosh Hashanah--a very symbolic time.
We didnít expect her to hold on so long, and I actually believe
that on some level, she chose this time to pass away. I went
from the experience of losing her in the morning to Rosh Hashanah
services in the evening.
A tahara was planned for the next
day. I didnít know any of the specifics of what was to happen
except that it involved ritual washing. My mother also had
no knowledge of it. From the time of her childhood she had
rejected the ritual aspects of Judaism. A non-Jewish woman
named Ellie, who took care of my mother for us occasionally,
told us that mom outlined exactly what was going to happen,
describing every aspect of the ritual. This was also very
mystifying to me. I have to believe that my mother saw the
ritual in a vision because she had no intellectual knowledge
of this tradition. What Ellie had shared with me was overwhelming
to my rational mind, but at the same time it opened me up
to questions of a spiritual nature: What is time--present,
future and past? Do we exist in all times simultaneously,
and are we capable of visiting every aspect of our lives in
life and death?
My mother felt that she had a very
good and long life. This acceptance made her death easier
for me. In the terminal days she was hallucinating a lot.
On occasion I believe she was describing angels floating above
and circling around her. I tried to help her let go by telling
her to fly with the angels.
As I sat in the funeral home with Kararzyna
before the others arrived, I didnít want to participate in
the ritual. Halfway through, however, that feeling changed
and I knew I needed to become part of the process. It was
the right time, and definitely the right decision.
As I listen to you describe your motherís death and
angels coming for her, the theme of taking a journey comes
I remember the actual moment when
I was invited to participate in the chevra kadisha
as clearly as if it were right now. I was writing a paper
on one of the Eleusinian Mysteries--the mother-daughter ritual
story of Persephone and Demeter--and the phone rang. It was
Helen Sizemore asking me if I would like to participate in
a Jewish ritual to wash Zenaís motherís body after she died.
My body immediately went through a number of visceral changes.
I was taken aback, but I also felt this would be a profound
opportunity for me and immediately agreed to do it. I felt
as if I were preparing to take a trip to a foreign and faraway
place where I didnít know the language or the customs. It
also felt like a special honor. I would be the only non-Jewish
participant, but was also the only one who had been close
to Rae. I had known her daughter, Zena, for over twenty-five
After morning Rosh Hashanah services
in Ukiah, I drove over to Lake County with Zena and her husband.
They were going to bury Rae in Los Angeles next to Zenaís
father, so we were packing and making preparations for the
trip. That was another part of the journey.
At the mortuary Zena and I sat in
the room with the pine coffin, listening to chant music and
looking through various books on death and dying. As though
looking through travel guides to a totally unknown place,
we still didnít know how to prepare. When the other women
arrived with the various accoutrements for our journey, we
went to the embalming room, and Helen put scarves on our heads.
The chevra kadisha participates in holy work--work
you canít do unless you have made a conscious decision and
are ready. You cannot be part of a holy committee and not
embrace holiness. To step into the circle to go on that journey
usually requires a hardship, beginning with carving out the
space in your calendar and making mental and emotional preparations
as well. A ritual takes you into another realm. Going into
the sacred arena is one part. Coming out on the other side
requires certain practices and time frames. Stepping back
into daily activity has to be done with care.
After the burial, the immediate
family can sit shivah--have a week of mourning at their
house with the community visiting and bringing food and diversion
to sustain and help them with the transition. People coming
to support family members for the week hopefully gives
enough time for them to go through a day without breaking
down. They can begin to come back to life.
The fact that Raeís death occurred during
the context of a high holy day is noteworthy. A practitioner
of Judaism has obligations as a worshipper to do things at
the right time, and the high holy days create special parameters.
That Raeís body had to be transported hundreds
of miles was another unique factor. This meant that burial
was delayed beyond the required twenty-four-hour time frame.
In todayís world, the chevra kadisha has to decide
how to handle these and other special circumstances.
For instance, more people are choosing cremation, which is
also not traditionally acceptable in Jewish practice.
Of the four taharas I have
participated in, only one was followed by a traditional Jewish
burial. One was for a non-Jewish family. The daughter wanted
a spiritual ceremony in preparation for her motherís burial,
and although we performed the ritual washing, we did
not follow the tahara structure.
At the end of the tahara for Rae, we respectfully rolled the
gurney from the embalming room to the area where the coffin
was sitting. We physically placed her body into the
coffin, Zena put some personal items in with her, and then
we closed the lid. I feel tingles even now to think of that
finalizing act. We then stood in a circle, sang and chanted,
hugged each other, and left. I felt jarred by having to climb
into the van for the ride back to Ukiah. Some of the women
were quiet, and some talked about their everyday lives. This
part of the journey seemed like a twilight zone--as if we
were between two worlds, trying to locate the bridge. Nothing
we said seemed to relate to anything, as if we were speaking
When I got home, I remember not functioning
for about three days. I didnít answer the telephone; I didnít
go out of my house. I have learned that it takes me a long
time to make a transition, so I didnít fight it. I stayed
in that sacred realm. Experience had acquainted me with a
deep place in myself that was waiting to be found. It seemed
like an old friend--death. I donít feel we can truly live
until we become acquainted with death and open to it.
I left right after saying goodbye to Mom. We drove to my sonís
home in Fremont, slept for a few hours, and then got up and
drove to Los Angeles. When we got there, my motherís body
hadnít arrived yet. We were feeling quite frantic--afraid
she wouldnít get there in time for her own funeral! She just
barely did. We had a small private ceremony, with just a few
relatives and a wonderful rabbi.
Mother wrote beautifully. After her
cancer diagnosis, I encouraged her to write down her thoughts.
She wrote them on bits and pieces of scratch paper and was
thrilled when I put them together on the computer. She
wanted this writing to be given to people after she died.
Sharing her words and memories became part of the service
and was a help to us all. The rabbi was happy to know something
of her thoughts. When he said he wished he had known her when
she was alive, I felt he meant it; he was a very soulful person.
We drove back home that night, and
I had to go to work right away. That next day I found myself
working by rote; I wasnít really there.
Back to when we walked into the embalming room--I had no idea
what to expect. The place was antiseptic and not at all cozy-looking,
but it was practical. There was a drain on the floor for the
water. I noticed a gurney on one end, and a sheet-covered
body. I looked around the room and thought, "Ah-ha" that must
be Rae over there. I wonder what it will be like when that
sheet is lifted--I had never even seen a dead body before
and was very aware of all the ways my senses were being affected.
It was very important to have the
container of a structured ritual. Eva led it. She told us
that for the next hour and a half we should plan to be quiet.
She further described ways to show respect for Raeís body.
We washed our hands, put on rubber gloves, lit candles, used
clean white cotton, and did everything in a ritualized sequence.
Rae was quite short, and used to
dye her hair red. When she talked, her eyes would sparkle
and glitter. I realized that her body was no more "Rae" than
the gloves I was wearing. It was devoid of Raeís brightness
and energy. I kept asking myself, "What is life? What does
it mean to be somebody?"
As we washed Rae, parts of me became
more present and alive. We removed the sheet for each specific
part of the body we washed, and recited prescribed prayers.
I thought to myself, "If she were alive, her fingers, hands,
arms, and so many parts could be removed, but as long as her
spirit remained, she would be Rae." Other thoughts also came
through: "What if my own body were lying there?" or "What
if this were my motherís body?" When she was first taken out
of refrigeration and was so cold, I remember thinking, "This
is what a turkey is like when it is thawed out--oh, but this
isnít appropriate!" There were so many layers and levels to
the experience. As we prayed words from the "Song of Songs,"
I felt we were acknowledging the beauty and importance of
the life Rae had known.
One important part of the Jewish tradition is to send a person
to burial with as little blood lost as possible. In the case
of an open wound, you have to be very careful not to wash
away blood; if there is blood on any clothing, the person
has to be buried in that clothing. This changes the action,
but not the intention.
The primary idea is purification. Gloves are
optional but commonly used--due to our awareness of blood-borne
pathogens and transmissible germs. We purify ourselves to
do our work; the dead person canít take a shower to get ready
to move into the next realm, so we wash her as if she is having
a mikvah--a ritual bath. We clean her well and thoroughly,
front and back, using a measured eight quarts of warm water.
After she is physically clean, we do the spiritual washing,
using another measured amount of warm water, and then dress
her in the white burial shroud.
During a short break between two parts of the ritual, Zena
came in. She didnít know that she was entering during the
break, but her timing was perfect.
Yes, I felt moved to go in at that moment.
After the cleansing part of the ritual, a blessing is given
and then three quarts of warm water are poured in a continuous
flow--always with respect--while keeping all other parts of
the body covered for modesty. After drying, the body is dressed
in the shroud. It is next to impossible to put regular clothes
on a dead person; the clothes have to be cut to get them on.
The shroud, on the other hand, has big openings for the arms
and drawstring pieces. It is yardage that has been cut and
shaped. In our simplistic view of heaven, the angels are sitting
around on clouds, all dressed in these same clothes. Everybody
is equal. She will travel the same route as other Jews have
traveled for the past 5,000 years--in a dignified way.
A bow is tied with three loops to represent shin,
a letter of the alphabet associated with a specific number
and Kabbalistic meaning. In Israel, or in a big city, someone
would be designated as "the reader" of various prayers and
scriptures. These words help maintain the intention and eliminate
mind chatter. Since we donít all speak Hebrew, there is a
benefit to listening to the readings in both Hebrew and English.
I liked that each of us read some of the prayers. This made
us seem more like a community, and that was very important
to me. Seven women came together and participated in this
very profound, intimate, spiritual time together, and then
dispersed. Now, when I see any of these women around town,
I feel an unspoken connection with them.
In the ritual dressing for Raeís journey,
the final pieces of clothing were a bonnet, and a piece of
cloth on her face. I was reminded of when a baby comes into
the world and we buy it a layette with loose clothing and
What I like about the Jewish Renewal Movement is that I can
go to a very old tradition and pull out pieces to practice
today. Some things are being reworked because they donít resonate
with us any more or because they disempower us. But there
is a strong energy among women to revisit the Jewish path,
and to renew certain very old traditions and to bring them
into the twenty-first century.
The importance of ritual is to make meaningful connection
in community. Having the body of the deceased person in the
home and washing, preparing and dressing it for burial were
common even in the early twentieth century. Death was part
of the rhythm of life. Today we deny old age and death, but
the option to care for the dying person at home is returning.
With programs such as Hospice, perhaps a critical mass of
baby boomers will consider new options for death and dying.
My mother wanted to die with dignity at home and not at the
hospital. That wouldnít have been possible without Hospice.
Through Hospice, a chaplain came to our house, and although
he wasnít Jewish he tried to find Hebrew prayers for her.
Although she had little to do with Christians, she responded
to this man because she could see that he respected her beliefs.
Often they remained in silence, just being there together
for periods of time.
My personal connection with Rae was
a springboard to the mystery and beauty of the journey--to
an intimacy with death. The ritual contains ancient wisdom,
recognizing the human need to keep a focus that allows spirit
to take us through the phases of the death transition.
It would be a comforting thought
to know that when I die, this ritual would happen for me.
I feel it is important to recognize different traditions,
and also to be reminded that there is a spiritual wisdom that
can contain us all.
Eva Strauss-Rosen was born in Copenhagen and emigrated to
Israel in 1968. She studied several fine arts in both countries
and moved to Willits in 1984, where she maintains a jewelry
studio. Her Judaica jewelry designs can be seen on the web
Zena Marks, M.S.W., came to northern California in 1974 and
over the years worked as a psychotherapist at the Department
of Mental Health in both Mendocino and Lake counties. After
retirement at the end of 1998, she accepted part-time employment
at the Mendocino Community Health Clinic at their Lakeport
office. She and her husband have recently relocated to Cloverdale.
Katarzyna Rolzinski came to Ukiah in 1968. She was a supervisor
at the Department of Social Services, and then deputy director
of CEMR until 1980, when she moved to Washington, D.C. to
do national education and consulting work. In 1991 she went
to Guatemala, and returned to Ukiah in 1993. She will
graduate with a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Integral
Studies in San Francisco in May 2000.
Helen Sizemore moved to Ukiah in 1976. She has worked locally
for Assemblyman Dan Hauser and in the successful political
campaigns of Dan Hamburg (U.S. House of Representatives) and
Kristy Kelly (Ukiah City Council). She was executive assistant
and human resources manager at Real Goods, Inc., for five
years, and is currently working in the human resources department
of North Coast Opportunities.