Friends + Family Nudged 5 times.

Washing the Dead

JenZark
Event Date: 18 March 2008
Like many American Jews, I grew up knowing nothing of how our tradition treats the dead. Give It a Nudge

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He was gone; I was alone; I was holding his hand. In a few minutes I would be calling the funeral director, who would ask if I wanted a Jewish burial for my father. That meant he would be given a ritual washing by members of the Sacred Burial Society, called Hevra Kaddisha in Hebrew. I would have to say yes or no.

My father was not even remotely religious and had not been since the rabbi at his Depression-era synagogue denied him a bar-mitzvah because his family couldn’t pay their yearly dues. The bar-mitzvah ceremony, meaning literally “a son of the faith,” signals an adolescent’s joining the community, and dad had always regretted being left out of it.

I looked down at my father’s still-warm hand, trying to decide what to do. I could see him as a skinny, freckly twelve year old, blue eyes widening as he took in the rabbi’s words. My father would have been smiling, because he didn’t like letting people know when they hurt him. He would have shrugged and nodded quickly, turning away.

I tried to remember how I felt when I first heard of the Burial Society. Like many American Jews, I grew up knowing nothing of how our tradition treats the dead—and my introduction to it had not been an auspicious one. I had moved with my husband to Hammond, Indiana from New York, where we had been struggling actors and writers. Mitch had come to Hammond to be a cantor in a synagogue; I to try to write a play.

Mitch joined the Burial Society almost immediately, which came as a shock to me. He described it, almost offhandedly, as a group of “special people” who take care of the dead by washing and dressing them. The washing, called “tahara” in Hebrew, has been done since ancient times in Jewish communities. It sounded weird and a little frightening—because beyond seeing one Catholic friend in his coffin, I had never been really close to death. I wasn’t sure how to react and asked him why he was joining.

Because he had never been in a war or had other intense life and death encounters, Mitch thought joining the Society would be an important experience for someone starting a career in the clergy. He also believed the Society was a group of people willing to do what no one else would—and that intrigued him.

I thought he was nuts. My mother and friends also thought he was nuts, but how could I tell him that? When I pressed for more details, he said he had something to show me. But instead of taking me to a funeral home, he brought me to a hair-salon, where, to my surprise, he introduced me to the owner, who shook my hand and offered me a free haircut.

I watched her as she pumped my seat higher and laid her scissors out on the counter. Her name was Nancy Feldman and she was a member of Mitch’s congregation. She was close to my age, in her late twenties, with a fountain of long curly hair, tight black leather pants and long red nails. “I heard your husband is a member of the Hevra Kaddisha,” she said as she lifted my hair while grinning into the mirror. Then she leaned over and whispered, “Me too.”

I looked up at her as she smiled. Those slender white fingers with perfectly polished nails were going out at night and washing dead people. What’s more, they were people Nancy knew. As she started cutting and layering, I knew I had to learn more.

The Hevra Kaddisha is made up of volunteers from every community. They are hair- stylists, secretaries, lawyers, wives and mothers; fathers, bakers, salesmen, nurses and students. They can be called at any time, day or night, because in Jewish law the dead must be buried within 24 hours whenever possible. They give up weekends, evenings and holidays to do this holy work.

Typically, the washings are done by funeral-home staff because the volunteer pool for groups like these is drying up. But in some communities like Hammond or Minneapolis, sacred burial societies are coming together at the request of local rabbis and retrieving the Hevra Kaddisha from obscurity. Why? Each member will tell you something different about why he or she joined.

Nancy became a member to try and make sense of her aunt’s death from cancer. The ritual she described was one I too would come to know, some years later. The washing takes place on a simple slab or platform and is done with a washcloth and basin. The person on the slab is generally covered with a large white sheet or cloth. Society members wash their hands three times in a ritual basin and say a prayer, asking for kindness for the body.

Then, little by little, each body part is uncovered and lovingly, carefully washed. A foot, a hand, a finger, forehead, shoulder. After each part is uncovered to be washed with a washcloth, it is covered again to be sure the person who is dead retains the highest amount of dignity. At the same time, prayers are said from the Song of Songs.

“Her body is as polished ivory overlaid with sapphires. Her legs are pillars of marble set upon foundations of fine gold. Her mouth is most sweet and she is altogether precious…”

Those doing the washing are experiencing a very intimate relationship, meanwhile, because the dead are so heavy and cannot bend. So the people washing them must get very close to the body to lift and clean it thoroughly. You are close enough to feel and smell the body, and in doing so, you learn that you are not so very far apart, after all. They are like you; a bit colder, but not half as cold or stiff or strange as you may have been led to believe.

When all the body parts have been washed, the body is strapped down. The platform or slab is raised so the body is in a vertical position, and three buckets holding eight quarts of water each are poured over the body in rapid succession. Those present who are living call out “Hu tahare” or “ Hee tahara”—meaning “he (or she) is Pure.”

Perhaps it is to connect the dead with the living, symbolically. Perhaps it is to wash away all the sorrows, mistakes or baggage they carried in life. I don’t know exactly, but I do know the care lavished on the deceased is to show as much reverence for the body as the soul. Because the body is the home where the soul resides, the washing is our last chance to say goodbye.

When the washing is over, the deceased is lowered and dressed in a white linen shroud. The pants are tied four times around the waist, and then a top is put over them. The shroud has no pockets so you take nothing out. The prayers continue and a bag of earth which contains soil from Israel is sprinkled around the body. Next, pottery is placed over the eyes and mouth. A cotton sash is tied around the waist to spell the name of G-d.

By the time I saw the tahara, we had moved to Minneapolis and the rite was performed at a local funeral home. Nancy and I stayed in touch and not long after, I decided to make my friend the pivotal character in a play about this ritual.

The day I visited, two elderly women were being washed by three people. The youngest smiled at me and said, “I do this in the hopes that someone will be there to do it for me.”

As I watched the Hevra Kaddisha members dressing the bodies, a flood of memories from the years I spent in Hammond returned. I remembered how Mitch would come home after a washing to say the person he took care of was a congregant. He would describe how it felt to put a shroud over the head of a man who had been joking with him only a few days before. I couldn’t help wondering what effect this was having, and if it would be traumatic, but it seemed to be the opposite. Ultimately, I think it made him more comfortable with death and in an altogether different way, in his own skin.

Another society member named Ursula told me about a mother who lost her little girl. Because she knew Ursula was a member of the Society, the mother called her to ask if the child could be buried in her shoes. “She will be cold,” the mother said, weeping. “How can I bear it if my little girl is cold?”

Ursula said she wept too, on hearing this. “Of course,” she said, knowing that although the burials are supposed to be done without shoes, it was more important to respect the mother’s wishes. “That was the time I was most glad to be in the Hevra Kaddisha,” said Ursula, “knowing this lady could call and talk to me. She did not have to deal with some faceless funeral home. She knew we would love and care for her daughter as we would our own.”

When we left the tahara in Minneapolis, we washed our hands in a basin outside the door. This was meant to signify that we were, once again, re-joining the land of the living. What struck me most about this experience was that in normal life, we are all so divorced from death. We never think about it unless it happens to a close friend or relative. Yet I can’t help but feel that in the past, our grandparents and their parents had stronger ties to life and each other because of this ritual.

Remembering all this, I called the funeral director and told him I wanted to give my father a traditional Jewish burial. When I hung up I took dad’s hand in my own. I thought of what he’d say if he knew what I did. “What are you doing here? Don’t you know your own father?” I thought of how rabbis in my father’s generation were often small and narrow-minded and how quickly they made decisions that affected people for years to come. But maybe that’s the point, I wanted to say. No rabbi has the power to give or take away what is yours.

And so they washed him. I was not present, was not allowed to be, as family members are prohibited from attending the washings of relatives; but I knew they were holding him, bending their faces to his and sprinkling the dark Israeli earth around his eyes. I could feel the gentleness in their hands as they covered him with buckets of water, one, two, three, in a continuous stream of clean and cold. They would be saying, in their prayers, that he belonged; that he was pure; that his soul was Jewish, and that he was, finally and forever, bar mitzvah—a son of the faith.

30 comments

Anonymous Reviewer Comment

I really enjoyed this!

12 October 2008

Anonymous Reviewer Comment

This is basically about a religious experience. I think it should be in that category. It is well written although I found myself disagreeing, I still gave it a high score. No obvious typos etc. Bit dull if you don't believe in the soul.

12 October 2008

Anonymous Reviewer Comment

Nicely done. The tension of your father's plight released nicely at the end. Warm and wonderful. Why was it distracting for me not to know you were a woman for so long? I don't know, butI think I would change that. "Actors and writers" cold be changed to artists perhaps or you need to drop the plural. Or were you both acting and writing? Anyway, confusing and distracting. Thanks for the story.

12 October 2008

Anonymous Reviewer Comment

Very moving account of the last rites for the author's father.

13 October 2008

Anonymous Reviewer Comment

Very well-structured, well-written informative essay.

13 October 2008

Anonymous Reviewer Comment

A beautiful story, well thought out and well written. Bravo.

14 October 2008

Anonymous Reviewer Comment

I like the structure of the piece very much. I like how it progresses from father, to husband, to the writer, discussing the spirituality of each, and how their spirituality informs their responses to this society. The story, however, is more about the society - the Hevra Kaddisha - than about the relationship of the writer to her father. I suggested that it be moved to the "Spirituality and Religion" category. I feel some of the sentences could benefit from some re-work. An example is this one, from late in the piece: "Those doing the washing are experiencing a very intimate relationship, meanwhile, because the dead are so heavy and cannot bend." Uh, what? What is it about being dead and inflexible that creates intimacy? The explanation is provided in the following sentences, but that fact does not improve the confusing structure of this one. There are a few other similar gaffs in verbiage. Otherwise, though, a good piece, well-told.

14 October 2008

Anonymous Reviewer Comment

Thank you for this piece of culture. I now have a feeling for this tender loving tridition. I am glad you shared in a lovely flowing narritive.

15 October 2008

Anonymous Reviewer Comment

The writer very effectively shows us how she overcame her aversion to the burying ritual, and in doing that, she brings us, the readers, along with her. In the end, it is a very moving story. Most interesting line: " ... in the past, our grandparents and their parents had stronger ties to life and each other because of this ritual ..." It's interesting because it's true, but it is still mysteriously true.

24 October 2008

Anonymous Reviewer Comment

Compelling, engaging, moving, powerful, well-written, and for me, a non-Jew, informative.

25 October 2008

Img_0012_medium sarwood said…

Powerful and illuminating...  I think it should go into the Spirituality and Religion category, though.

28 October 2008

Field_report_photo_2_medium Secretkeeper said…

Beautifully written. It is too bad that your reconnection to your faith came through death, but that is not uncommon.  Judaism is a religion of life, although we believe the soul lives on, it is our deeds and actions in this life that is most important.  I like the way you showed how much respect Judaism has for the dead body, the temple of the soul.  Traditionally, it is never left alone until it is buried.  Someone recites the psalms nearby.  By the way, although your father never had his bar mitzvah formally recognized, the day he turned 13, he became a bar mitzvah.  L'chaim to you!

31 October 2008

Bigcasino_medium Bigcasinoinreno said…

Being non-Jewish I found the story very educational. It seemed a little creepy at first, and I suppose that may be because I'm reading this story on Holloween nite! But the tradition of washing the dead was a new concept for me and through your narrative you turned what might otherwise seem morbid to someone with different religeous beliefs into a tale that showed respect for time honored practises of Jewish tradition. 

31 October 2008

Default_icon_medium swimswithwords 2958 said…

Well-detailed though not for this category.  Seems much more a Spirituality and Religion piece.  

1 November 2008

Gloomy_medium hvnlykarma said…

CONGRATULATIONS!!

1 November 2008

Lady_medium logotic said…

A fascinating description of a surprisingly beautiful and tender ritual, and the sense of closure at the end, the recognition that the father was now, and by implication, always was and always would be a part of the community, was lovely.

2 November 2008

Default_icon_medium sallye123 said…

I really enjoyed reading this, it is very well written and informative at the same time

2 November 2008

Default_icon_medium doesitcomewithgravy said…

Beautiful. Touching and enlightening. I like that the author not only told a story, but taught me something as well.

3 November 2008

Default_icon_medium Mary Skowronek said…

Thank you for telling us about this tradition. Am a  Charismatic Catholic who knows how strongly Judaeo-Christian my faith is, and I thirst for such information as you have written. Like you, we Catholics are at home with death. and it is so good to read of a loving ritual that would also have been done for Christ. It is so important for me that god chose to be born a Jew and that the jews were the only people he could go to, the only ones who had been faithfully finding out the nature of God. it is so sad that so many look to the ancient Greeks for their philosophy instead of to the jews. i wish my own church would wake up and kick out the Aristotelian stuff and come back to our Jewish heritage. Your fieldreport has deepened my love for my Jewish ancestors. Now I'll give you a nudge, because it is so important that your fieldreport is read by many.

4 November 2008

Img_2327_medium dragonfly said…

very touching and informative all at the same time... well written... unique and comforting story of this inevitable transition.

4 November 2008

Default_icon_medium Violet Brown said…

What a sweet story, of tradition and family love. Informative also.

4 November 2008

Pepperpixiesnoozing_medium nancylyness said…

This beautifully written piece gave me tremendous comfort and peace, as I had previously had no idea what really went on during my mother's and grandmother's recent Taharas. Thank you for sharing.

5 November 2008

Default_icon_medium lapidaire 2920 said…

This moving, unsentimental account outlines a daughter's coming to terms w/death in general, her father's death in particular, & the reassuring rituals of her faith as a non-believing Jew. Good use of language.

5 November 2008

Default_icon_medium lapidaire 2920 said…

This moving, unsentimental account outlines a daughter's coming to terms w/death in general, her father's death in particular, & the reassuring rituals of her faith as a non-believing Jew. Good use of language.

5 November 2008

Default_icon_medium jhowardsma 4281 said…

What a fine historical, educational and yet emotional tale. I enjoyed reading and learning of a ritual that I knew nothing about. I believe it is well written, professional and smooth.

15 November 2008

Default_icon_medium charliegeb 5073 said…

Favorite line: "You are close enough to feel and smell the body, and in doing so, you learn that you are not so very far apart, after all. They are like you; a bit colder, but not half as cold or stiff or strange as you may have been led to believe."

15 November 2008

Jean_at_picnic_medium jeaniemac said…

Beautiful. Beautifully written. I cried. I wished I'd done this right thing for my husband, now long dead.

17 November 2008

Matteo_bio_pic_medium matteo 5282 said…

I really enjoyed this, but as interesting as the explanation of the Hevra Kaddisha was, I kind of missed hearing more about the author's father. He sounds like a warm, caring person, and I'd love to know a bit more about him.

18 November 2008

__mjw_mystyry_small_medium Kentucky Colonel said…

Koach!

20 November 2008

Default_icon_medium sahnisam said…

Very enlightening article.

23 November 2008

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