It’s 7:45 am and I am sitting in my car outside the funeral home. I’m flipping through Rick Light’s Powerpoint presentation “Taharah Training”. I’m more than a little nervous. What if I do something that is considered dishonoring to the Meitah? What if I get faint at the sight of a deceased person? As a hospice volunteer, I have been in the presence of several of my patients after death. But each one has been peacefully resting in bed with the covers pulled up to the chin. This is going to be different, but I take comfort in the thought that this was a lady who died of old age, not a young person or a trauma victim.
At close to 8 am, our meeting time, other members of the Chevra Kadisha show up. Five, including the reader, have been members for years, and there is one other newbie like me. We gather in an inviting anteroom at the funeral home. We are all dressed in somber, dark clothing, some with headscarves, a couple of us with our hair tied back. A staff member brings us tea and coffee. One of us knew the Meitah well (but I will not use her name), and shares stories that serve to personalize her. It seems she was an active, vibrant person before becoming ill and going into a nursing home. We take a moment to state our kavanah. Our Roshah, Holly Blue, says we all need to do our best, and that we can ask the Meitah for forgiveness if we do not get everything exactly right. There are no special precautions for this Taharah. I alternate between a fervent private prayer “Please don’t let me screw up,” and wondering, “Can I really do this?”
After discussing who will stand where (I am at the feet on the right side), we head towards the Taharah room. The Meitah is on a metal table under a sheet. In her presence, we become hushed, speaking in low voices as we don our protective gear. I am surprised that it is not just possible, but quite easy, to put on plastic gloves over wet hands. The two of us who were not wearing headscarves put on blue hairnets. The kavanah in the room is already so strong that it draws me in. My worrying about my capabilities just makes this about me, and there is no longer room for such thoughts.
We take our place around the Meitah and the reader addresses the Meitah by her Hebrew name, asking her forgiveness if we cause her distress by our actions. Then more prayers are read in which on behalf of the Meitah we ask God to have compassion. The Roshah removes the sheet as someone carefully places a towel to cover the Meitah’s pubic area. She is thin, and with very many of the purple bruises old people get – I’ve had a few. There are bandages on her lower legs and on one hand. Her toes below the bandages are swollen and dark. The cumulative damage to her body makes her look very vulnerable. I hope she did not suffer at the end of her life. If she was lucky enough to have hospice care, they would have ensured she was not in pain.
The Meitah’s skin looks incredibly fragile; we all need to be very careful. There is evidence of bleeding. Should I remove the bandages? I look to Holly Blue who shakes her head. At the time, I had thought the class on Taharah safety went into way too much detail about the yucky stuff. Now I am glad they did; nothing here is a surprise. The sum total of the kavanah as we surround the Meitah is sufficiently powerful that I am totally present, which is rare for me. But I do manage to remind myself that one day I will look like this, maybe a lot worse.
As more prayers are read, Holly Blue starts to gently wash the right side of the Meitah’s head and shoulders. The person opposite her is focused on the Meitah, and copies Holly Blue’s actions. This is not quite what we learned about completing the right side before the left is started, but I follow the others’ lead. We roll the Meitah over on her left side. I am watching the person lovingly cradling the Meitah’s head so it does not flop to the side. As we roll the Meitah back, her right foot drops with a heavy thunk on the table. The sharp intake of breath to my left tells me this was not good. I should have been more careful. I look towards the Meitah’s head, wanting to apologize, then realizing I need to keep the apology in my head. I also learn belatedly that the washing stage of a Taharah is really intended to clean the whole body thoroughly, even while being gentle and reverent. I need to remember this for next time. But the Meitah is not yucky; I try to form a mental apology to her for even thinking this; and another apology for not cleaning her adequately the first time.
The reader continues with prayers which I remember a little from reading Chesed Shel Emet, reading them aloud in my syllable-by-halting-mispronounced-syllable Hebrew. Now the flowery hyperbolic language seems oddly appropriate, even if not factually accurate.
When the washing is complete, we carefully dry both the Meitah and the table under her. She is briefly covered again with a sheet until the actual Taharah is started. We put on clean gloves. Yet more prayers are read as we stand around the Meitah. The Taharah takes only a minute while two buckets of water are poured over her, starting at the head and pouring in a continuous flow, as we recite “Tehorah Hee, Tehorah Hee” over and over. This is the purification ritual, and is distinct from the earlier washing. I was so focused on the Taharah I cannot as I write this remember thinking or feeling anything about it, only the sound of water splashing on the metal table.
Again we dry the Meitah and the table below her with the few remaining clean towels, all the while protecting her modesty with a towel and being careful to use separate towels for the Meitah and the table. Holly Blue produces the tachrichim or burial clothes, which are icy white and voluminous. Even so, we are somewhat uncoordinated in dressing her. I can feel the communal apology hanging in the air although no words are said outside of the prayers until the “alef, bet, gimmel, dalet” is recited as the knots are tied on the waistband of the trousers. The Meitah is now a white bundle, and she seems somehow even smaller.
In preparation for putting the Meitah in the aron (casket), we carefully place a sheet under her. Holly has us do a trial lift, raising the dressed Meitah off the table a few inches and carefully putting her back down again. The aron is placed beside the table angled so we can lift the Meitah and walk her over and gently lower her into it. As she is placed in the aron I realize something has shifted in how I see her. She is no longer the vulnerable Meitah with fragile, bruised skin. I’m not quite sure what is different, but it is significant. I did not get any sense of transformation when we did the actual Taharah, but something has happened.
This feeling is accentuated when Holly gives me the afar to put on the Meitah’s eyes, heart and genital area. I share the little packet with the others who will also sprinkle it in the aron. The other newbie gets the shards to put on her eyes and mouth. I realize this is Holly’s way of welcoming us into the Chevra Kadisha and it is a huge effort for me not to get choked up. I am not entirely successful, but no one seems to notice. The lid with its Magen David is placed on the aron producing in me a sense of finality and completion.
Now we all remove our protective gear. We wheel our charge carefully out of the Taharah room, across the courtyard and into the chapel, where she rests below a large Magen David. Here Holly Blue reads the final prayers in confident Hebrew. I am impressed; Holly’s Hebrew is only a little better than mine. She must have learned this prayer by heart. I need to give the Meitah a final apology and to ask her forgiveness for my beginner’s mistakes, but I can only make useless blubbery tears. Then I realize I am not the only one. We stand with our thoughts facing the aron for several minutes. Some of us have appointments and need to go. There is no time for a debrief so I don’t have to confess my mistakes.
I get home with just time for a quick shower before my weekly Hebrew lesson. I explain to the Rabbi that I have just completed my first Taharah and will not be totally focused on the lesson. The Rabbi and other student lead me to the kitchen where the Rabbi does a quick ritual washing of my hands and offers me a blessing to ameliorate my accumulated tumah (ritual impurity) from handling the Meitah. This is confirmation for me that something significant happened during the Taharah, although I cannot yet say what.
A day or so later, Holly Blue calls me to see if I am OK and to debrief. She has her own list of items she thinks she could have done differently or better. I had not noticed anyone else making mistakes. It seems Holly made a conscious decision not to intervene when washing the left side of the Meitah commenced before the right side was completed. Holly has been doing this for years, but she wants the Chevra Kadisha to meet regularly and to practice, especially awkward activities such as putting on the tachrichim.
It is now two weeks since the Taharah. I still don’t really know why it was such a big deal, but it definitely was. One thing I have not mentioned is the significance of the date it was performed. When my best friend Robin died three years ago, I sat Shmira for her, not really knowing what Shmira is. Robin is my age, but received a terminal cancer diagnosis four years ago. The disease progressed much quicker than was expected; the chemotherapy nearly killed her and she was too soon transferred to hospice care. For about four months, hospice gave Robin her life back. In that time, Robin showed me how to die, and in doing so taught me much about the meaning of life. She took control of her life and faced her demise with courage, faith and humor. Close to the end, she asked me about Shmira. Then she died, but could not be buried for several days as the December ground that year was too wet to dig the grave. Reb Google told me what I needed to know about Shmira, so I presented myself to Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco with Robin’s Tanakh. I was shown into a large room below the refrigerated space in which the Meitim were kept. For about four hours on each of three consecutive days, I read Psalms. I never felt anyone’s presence, not even Robin’s, but I was sufficiently not alone that reading Psalms in an empty room seemed quite reasonable and appropriate. It was a huge help in coming to terms with Robin’s untimely death, although I understand that is not the intent of Shmira.
My first Taharah was performed on Robin’s Yahrzeit. She died three years ago on the day that would become the first night of Hanukkah, the 25th of Kislev, and the very day I participated in my first Taharah. For those three years I have been a fairly active hospice volunteer. It is the most important thing I do. It also gives me far more than the moderate effort I put in. I have gradually realized that in spending the afternoon with an old lady with advanced dementia, I become a person who gives up afternoons to be with an old lady with advanced dementia, and that is a person I want to be.
Soon after Robin’s death, in recounting my experience with Shmira, the Rabbi asked if I would volunteer for the Chevra Kadisha. I agreed, but due to a combination of circumstances this was my first opportunity. I am still unsure of what I am taking away from it. The afternoon after the Taharah, I just had to see my hospice patient. I had just returned from twelve days away and had not seen my patient in over two weeks. Recently, she has been fading, and I had been concerned I would get a call from Hospice while I was away telling me she had passed. I had a monstrous pile of errands and tasks to catch up on, and could easily have allowed several more days to go by before making time for my patient. In my post-Taharah mindset, that would have been disrespectful to her, and I could not go there.
In retrospect I believe we did honor the Meitah, even if imperfectly on my part. In preparing her body for burial, dressed like the High Priest, we did validate her as B’Tzelem Elochim, in the image of God. I never felt her Neshamah hovering in the room, but she remained a person I could communicate with by thought the whole time. I’m not yet sure what the Taharah did for me. I don’t have a sense that honoring a deceased person makes of me an honorable person.
But even just reading this account gets me teary. When it is my turn to go, I want someone to give me a Taharah. I want to be appreciated and cared for and described as fair and beautiful no matter what I really look like.
Several months ago, a hospice patient died unexpectedly while I was alone with him. My head was immediately rushed with questions. What should I do? Whom should I call? I was trying to remember my hospice training when all of that vanished and I was aware only of being in a profoundly sacred moment. It did not matter that this person drank himself to an early exit, only that a human life had ended and that demanded God be present as Witness. Maybe I need this level of intensity to appreciate the Divine presence. My main experience in the Taharah room was of the overwhelming kavannah of the group. Did that also summon God? Perhaps our bold, full-frontal affirmation of the Meitah as B’Tzelem Elohim did just that.
Rose is a retired aerospace engineer who has found a new calling as a hospice volunteer and as co-lead of our Community Chevrah Kadisha. She lives near Santa Cruz California with her husband and cat.She is a student of the Gamliel Institute. This is her first blog for Expired And Inspired, but we certainly hope not her last.