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.