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The Last Kindness

The Last Kindness

One night the hevra kadisha called. Despite my squeamishness, they needed my help.

by

I had always been fascinated by the hevra kadisha, the ritual burial society that prepares the dead before they are placed in their coffins. In Jewish communities, this task – the taharah, as it is called – was usually performed by the elders.

It was considered the highest form of kindness to perform this last act before the grave because there is no payback from the dead. Yet, there was small likelihood of my performing this good deed. While Jewish, I wasn't exactly an elder. Also I was squeamish.

Then I moved to the Passaic/Clifton area. In my new synagogue, there were few elders left; most had moved to Florida or elsewhere. Should I join the hevra kadisha? Or perhaps you had to be invited. I didn't think about it too much. I got sidetracked with my newborn, my first novel that had just come out, and the demands of making ends meet.

A year ago, I got stuck on a scene in my second novel. A hundred and twenty pages into my book, a mystical rabbi – a kabbalist – dies, and his heartbroken assistant performs a taharah. I had never read a taharah scene before in fiction, and I wanted to do it justice.

I called up a few members of the hevra kadisha and they described, step by step, what happens. But I knew it was no good. I had to be there. I had never even seen a dead person before. But how could I show up at a ritual burial with a notepad and pen? I sure wouldn't want any fiction writer at my taharah.

One night, though, the hevra kadisha called. They were stuck for a fourth person. Could I help? Well, I thought, they needed me. It was legitimate, and I showed up a few hours later at a Jewish chapel off Allwood Road in Clifton. A friendly custodian unlocked the door and let us in.

Actually there were two taharahs going on at the same time, in separate rooms – an atypical night. I was to be the floater, called from room to room as needed. Everyone washed and put on yellow plastic robes, gloves, masks and booties, making me wonder what kind of gory mess I'd actually see.

I averted my eyes from one of the bodies lying on a table and watched the others get busy. One woman was breaking pottery shards, another was cutting up cloths and filling buckets of water, a third was stuffing a small pillowcase with straw. I was the designated pray-er, the one reciting prayers from a laminated card, depending on what part they were up to. Between prayers, I helped the others.

Here lay someone who clearly had expected to be doing other things that day.

Eventually my eyes went to one of the deceased, a thin elderly woman from a Jewish nursing home nearby. The woman in the second room looked to have been in her forties. I marveled at her pretty eyes lined in blue, the pink nail polish perfectly applied to her toenails and fingernails. She looked too alive. Here lay someone who clearly had expected to be doing other things that day.

I accidentally brushed against her skin, and my own skin jumped. Even through my plastic gloves I could tell there was no energy in that skin, no life force. I couldn't have known what dead was until I had touched it.

My hand reached across the woman's body to pass a cloth, and someone gently pushed my hand back. Oh. I remembered from the booklets: The soul was considered to be still hovering near the body, and it was disrespectful to pass things over the torso. I uttered from the prayer card, ''His hands are like rods of gold set with emeralds, his belly is polished ivory, overlaid with sapphires.''

As each part of the body was washed, that small section was exposed, then covered. It comforted me to know that when I died, my body wouldn't be lying exposed for even those kind volunteers, but ultimately strangers, to see. ''His legs are pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold. His countenance is like the Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.''

Someone asked me how I was doing. ''Okay,'' I said. I had feared I might faint. Actually the only thing getting to me was the prayers. ''His mouth is most sweet, and he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.''

What are they talking about, I thought. The woman with the pink nail polish – her mouth had become twisted, bloodied and distorted in death. It wasn't ''most sweet.'' I couldn't look at her. As for the other woman, I didn't see any dove's eyes, or legs that were pillars of gold. Instead I saw chicken legs! Why were they describing beautiful bodies? What was I missing here?

I tried to imagine the things this old woman had done with her legs, the meals she had made for her family while her legs supported her, the times she had chased after stray children, the eyes that had looked at a loved one with patience or tenderness, a hand that had made useful or pretty things or held a sick friend.

The prayers reminded you of the body's former splendor. Here in the room, I felt its grief.

Were the prayers saying that the body is beautiful because of what you did with it, what you accomplished? Maybe. But looking at myself and at the other women moving vitally about, I understood that any body that is alive is beautiful, and any body that is dead has lost that claim to beauty forever. The prayers reminded you of the body's former splendor. Here in the room, I felt its grief.

We took buckets of water and doused the body completely. We chanted, ''You are pure,'' three times. We dressed the body, no simple matter, in plain white clothes, the clothes a priest wore, tying God's name into the belt across the waist. After the pottery shards were placed on various parts, and a faint sprinkling of soil from Israel, we did a final tucking and adjusting for the long evening ahead, then placed the cover on the coffin.

In the end, I remembered enough (without a notepad) to create the scene for my novel. I remembered how a candle was placed at the head of the coffin, and how we all gathered around.

The group leader turned and in a low, warm voice addressed the deceased by name. ''We the women of the hevra kadisha ask your forgiveness if there was anything we did while performing the taharah that wasn't respectful or kind enough. We tried to do the best we could.'' Again she said her name, and, ''Please forgive us. We pray that things go well for you.''

After this experience, the author decided to become a member of the Chevra Kadisha where she's been actively involved for three years.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times 2005.

The new anthology "Everyone's Got a Story – 41 short stories from a new generation of Jewish writers," edited and compiled by Ruchama Feuerman, is now available for purchase. The stories are drawn from her students who have taken her workshops over the years. The anthology also includes Mrs. Feuerman's writing essays and creative exercises to unlock the story within everyone. Click here to order.

Published: June 21, 2008


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Visitor Comments: 22

(19) Ruchama Feuerman, July 30, 2012 9:10 PM

Postscript to story

I hear what you're saying, Judith. The same issue bothered me, too, even after I told the chevra kadisha my story agenda. Perhaps, that's why I couldn't walk away with my notepad that night and forget what I'd seen and decided to become a member. I served on the Chevra Kadisha for three years after that. I think it's interesting that it's the only group I know of in Judaism that's referred to as the Holy Society, and I'm honored to have been part of it during that time in my life. . Blessings, Ruchama

M. D., August 2, 2012 7:31 AM

added to the story?

Perhaps this should be included at the bottom of the story as I think many were bothered by your initial agenda as was I. It might not be read in the comments section.

JudithM, August 14, 2012 2:23 AM

If I could just learn to be Dan L'kaf Zchus ...

Thank you for confiding that.If I had been Dan L'kaf Zchus I would not have' heard' the story so critically,nor would I have judged you. One have to be genuinely compassionate and truly value human life to join a Chevra Kadisha; I certainly don't have the backbone or character. Kol Hakavod to you. I apologize for judging you.

(18) Tiferet, July 30, 2012 9:06 PM

Second thoughts of goodness.

I work with the elderly. I have recently been preparing breakfast and/or lunch for a lovely 88 yr. old as she was temporarily in her sons home. They were looking for a metapelet so that she could return to her own home. At lunch one day she tells me that they offered her someone that had been doing Taharah (worked with the dead as she put it) as her most recent job. My initial response was forget it! Hers was also! And she told me this and then immediately I said to myself, wait a minute (as she started to tell me that afterwards she thought it over to the opposite effect), she's probably really something, someone who could do this work. I thought of a close freind who is doing this and what a wonderful person she is. She lost the opportunity because of her initial response, but we both agreed that she was probably something! (And I figured that maybe she also, now, wanted someone that moved around a bit.)

(17) JudithM, July 30, 2012 5:21 PM

This very well written essay is disturbing. Tahara is not a spectator sport

Clearly the writer is sensitive, and not intentionally disrespectful. Still, despite her legitimate participation in the Tahara, I feel like crying, can't say just why. Tahara, so far as I can figure it from the Hebrew I know, is the process of making holy, o pure, or sanctifying, preparing in a sanctified way, perhaps. The writer peeping over Mrs. Feuerman's shoulder throughout the process at least distracted from the purity of her intention. Perhaps, in some spiritual way more seriously interrupted process. I cannot articulate precisely what disturbed me so much-it was a comfort to know how te Chevra spoke to the woman and treated her with great respect and kindness. Not everything ought to be considered grist for one's creative mill.

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