Lessons for Living From the Burial Society by Marjorie Ingall

[Ed. Note: This story by Marjorie Ingall originally appeared in Tablet magazine July 17th 2019,, at tabletmag.com, and is reprinted with permission.

The original can be linked at https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/287796/lessons-burial-society.

Our thanks to Tablet for granting us use. Holly Blue Hawkins, the person interviewed, is a Gamliel Institute student and teacher. She has submitted other blogs to Expired And Inspired. — JB]

Lessons for Living From the Burial Society

What a ‘death midwife’ has learned from the dead and dying

By Marjorie Ingall




What a ‘death midwife’ has learned from the dead and dying

By Marjorie Ingall

July 17, 2019 • 9:40 AM


I met Holly Blue Hawkins at the Limmud Festival in England last year. She led a session called “What 20 years in a chevra kadishahas taught me about living.” I wept through the entire hour.

Hawkins is the head of the chevra kadisha (burial society) in Santa Cruz, California, She also serves on the board of trustees of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of the state of California, teaches end-of-life planning classes in synagogues and schools, participates in Death Cafes (informal discussion groups about death and dying), and speaks [Ed. Note – teaches and studies in Gamliel Institute cleasses and] at Kavod v’Nichum (literally “honor and comfort”) conferences.

The Jewish process of preparing a body for burial is dead simple, as it were. Members of the chevrah kadisha wash their hands. They say a prayer asking forgiveness for any inadvertent offenses committed during the taharah, the process of cleansing and purification. They remove jewelry, wipe the body with warm cloths, wash it in a ritual bath or with poured buckets of water, recite “tehorah hee” (“she is pure”) together. They dry the body tenderly, dress it in plain white cotton muslin or linen, tie the strings on the clothing so that the loops form a letter shin for Shaddai, one of God’s names. They may wrap the body in a prayer shawl, if the person wore one to pray in life. Then they place the body in a plain pine box and wrap it in a white cotton or linen sheet.

Holly Blue Hawkins
Holly Blue Hawkins (photo courtesy of Holly Blue Hawkins)

Hawkins’ interest in the liminal process of dying began back in the 1980s, when she was co-leading support groups in the Maui Community Corrections Facility. After moving to California, she worked as a paralegal, helping clients with estate planning and advance-care directives, before moving into chevrah kadisha service. Here’s some wisdom gleaned from her Limmud talk and from a long-ranging interview conducted last week.

Anyone can be a helper.

“I got involved in this work way back in the mid-’90s, when some friends were forming a chevrah kadisha. At the time I was disabled from a too-much-using-a-mouse injury and couldn’t do taharah. I couldn’t lift things. But what I could do was sit. I could read psalms and talk to the person. That practice of just sitting with a body, not touching, is called shmirah —being a shomer, a guardian. We stay with the body from the time the person dies until they’re buried. This was something meaningful I could do.”

Jewish values mean caring for the vulnerable, even when it’s hard.

Chevrah kadisha literally means sacred society. Traditionally it doesn’t just take care of the dead. It looks after indigent people and people who are bereaved or ill. It takes care of the cemetery. It’s a broad stretch of caring for the vulnerable. Some of us are working hard toward bringing that back, doing all those things. In the past, every time Jews had to move from one place to another, the first thing they did was create a cemetery. Not a synagogue or general store. Because in our tradition when someone dies, we try to bury them within the first 24 hours. ‘Sacred society’ sounds kind of grand; I prefer ‘holy friends.’ This is a holy order within Judaism, doing this work. When I’m teaching now, I don’t say funeral or burial. I say levaya, which means accompaniment. That’s the most important thing we do—accompany others.”

 When something is uncomfortable, slow down and pay attention.

“I’d been doing taharah for years before I understood that when you’re dealing with something intense that you just want to get through as quickly as you can, that’s when it’s most important to slow down. Right at the point when you most want to speed up. Take deep breaths and invoke the sacred in whatever way you do that. That’s had an impact on my life in all kinds of ways. When I’m dealing with the body of someone who maybe who had a terrible illness or died in a tragic accident, I’ll take extra time. Carefully, gently, brushing the hair. Washing the limbs. It doesn’t matter whether the person is literally in that body. Once, during a very difficult taharah, we began singing Ana B’Ko’ach.” We started nigun-ing. And that’s when the sacredness came back into the room. How do you turn a difficult task into a prayer? We pray with our hands while doing taharah. As my friend Richard Light says, it’s like midwifing souls—how cool is that?”

Let in joy whenever you can.

“People say to me, ‘I don’t understand how you can do such depressing work and be such a bubbly person!’ And I say, ‘It’s because I do this work that I’m a bubbly person!’ The last person I did was 102 years old. In life, she really liked attention. She liked to look good. If she had a bad haircut, oh, you heard about it. As we were working on her, music started pouring in the window from outside—it was so perfect. And in the preparation room, as we’re tying the knots [in the strings tied to form the letter shin], I found myself softly singing “You, baby, nobody but you,” because this really was all about her. I think she would have loved that level of focus on her.”

Death isn’t a moment. It’s a process. And it isn’t gross.

“I believe the connection between life and death doesn’t sever like you’re cutting a string. It’s gradual. Someone once said that death is like drawing a hair out of a glass of milk. We’re so programmed in our society to go, ‘Ew, scary, bodies.’ But why? We say tehorah hee over the body, and we say it every day in our morning prayers. ‘Elohai neshamah she’natata bee, tehorah hee: My God, the soul you gave me is pure.’ I always say tehorah hee three times, the way we do when we are pouring buckets of water on the bodies in the ceremony after we’ve cleaned them. It’s basically giving them their last sponge bath. And that’s how I start my day. It is something you do with reverence.”

Remember that death is coming, no matter what.

“One day it will be my friends taking care of me. Knowing that keeps me more alive. Am I gonna squander this day? As Rabbi Hillel said, ‘If not now, when?’ We say to repent the day before you die … but when is that gonna be? Who knows? In the bedtime Shema, we practice dying a little bit. Every night before we go to bed. It’s all there in our tradition, but we’ve lost touch with a lot of it.”

Look for beauty in everyone and everything.

“Maybe the person who died is very elderly or was very sick. We still sing the Song of Songs to them. We still say, ‘How beautiful you are, my beloved.’ There’s always a point where the body has to be adjusted on the table, and that’s kind of my thing. I want to do it. I want to think, ‘This person was once a tiny newborn baby, and someone did this for them.’ Someone hugged this person. I want to pick them up in my arms. People are like, ‘Yuck, you take dead bodies in your arms?’ And I’m like, ‘Right!’ This is not a Bela Lugosi movie! This is a holy vessel. It’s reframing. And in life, it tells me that all bodies are beautiful. This whole body-shaming thing—excuse me? You were created b’tzelem Elohim [in God’s image]!”

Give people the benefit of the doubt.

“I am the old hippie who lives at the end of the road and tries not to go to town much. I hate crowds. I hate driving across Santa Cruz when there’s traffic. But now I think, ‘If I’m going to treat a body as precious when there’s no one in it, how much more is a person deserving of kavod, of honor and love and respect?’ Where I’m going with this is even, God forbid, if someone is executed for a heinous crime, our tradition says that that person deserves to be treated the same way in death as someone who lived an exemplary life. Why can’t we give people the benefit of the doubt in life?”

 Honoring the dying means honoring the living.

Kavod ha’met is honoring the body of the deceased, which is why we Jews advocate so strongly for not doing an autopsy under normal circumstances. But if someone dies under suspicious circumstances—not necessarily as in ‘did someone off them’ but as in why did they die; did they have a disease that could impact their lineage for generations, or did they die of a disease that could be spreading—we could preserve other lives. So we do an autopsy. And the Jewish value of organ donation—which is pikuach nefesh, saving a life—has more weight than kavod ha’met.”

 Cry when you want to cry.

“It’s a tough sell to get me to cry when I’m unhappy. But I can weep over beauty. A week and a half ago, I was standing at William Wordsworth’s grave and reading ‘Daffodils’ and weeping uncontrollably. And I had to say to myself, ‘This is good. This is OK. This level of beauty is exactly what we need here in this world.’ Think about the moment when someone you adore is being lowered into the ground and you pick up that shovel upside down and reluctantly throw dirt on that coffin and it goes bang, so loud—it’s supposed to make you feel. To make you fall apart. It’s deliberate. We all grieve differently, but if we stop ourselves from our grief, we’re stopping ourselves from our joy. It’s the same plumbing. It’s like Lamaze breathing. Trying to prevent feeling from happening means we’ll fail. We may fool ourselves into thinking we’ve got it handled, but it’ll come out some other way. And it’ll probably be worse.”

 There’s no rehearsal; there’s only practice.

When you’re rehearsing, you’re doing a very serious ‘let’s pretend.’ But if every time we do something, it’s the only chance we get to do it exactly like that, we bring a whole other level of kavannah [intentionality] to it. If today is just a rehearsal for tomorrow, how different is that from saying, ‘Oh, just do t’shuvah the day before you die’? This may be it! You and I will never have another chance to have this conversation. We’ll hopefully have others. But the difference between rehearsal and practice is: Give it everything you’ve got. That’s not to say there’s never rehearsal—you will fry yourself trying to be perfect all the time. A friend was going to pieces because her mother was dying, and I was all, ‘You’re going to only get one chance to do this. Is this how you want to be right now?’ And she became the warrior. She paid attention. She had kavannah. And it made a huge difference to her mother’s dying experience.”

Fear can be healthy.

Yira means fear and awe. But I say it’s neither; it’s the place between the two. That’s where we have yichud, connection. That’s where we’re in I-Thou with an experience. If we’re not in balance, we’ll either scream or wow ourselves right into the cosmos and kind of miss it. I think of the day I was standing in front of an active volcano and watching it start to erupt. Or that moment at Sinai when God said hello and all the people freaked out and fell down, and Moses was the only one in a state of yira, because he had an I-Thou relationship with Hashem [God]. If we can practice holding those scary, profound moments in a sacred manner—like that moment when I hold a dead body in my arms and think, ‘this was a baby once, wow’—that’s yira.”




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The next course scheduled for the Gamliel Institute is Course 3 – Chevrah Kadisha Education, Organization, and Leadership (EOL). It focuses on leadership, communal education, and organizational skills for creating and maintaining a Chevrah Kadisha. It will run September 3rd through December 17th 2019. Registration is $500. with a volume and clergy discount available.


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About Expired and Inspired

Expired and Inspired is Kavod V’Nichum’s blog on all matters relating to life end, death, funerals, and comfort. 

The topic of death and dying has long been a taboo subject. Because death comes to all of us, and touches almost all of us in our life, we feel that it needs to be open for conversation and learning – not necessarily in a morbid fashion: there are aspects of this part of life that are beautiful and touching. Our view is that the death of a loved one is sad, but the sacred, holy work in which we engage in this arena can be spiritual, loving, transformative, and life-affirming. Talking about it should not be ‘taboo’ or avoided. There is even room, at times, for humor, as well as awe, love, and honor, as we explore this universal part of life.

Expired and Inspired is intended to educate, reveal, and share stories in an interesting and compelling way about the people involved, and the Jewish process, rituals, and activities that include Bikkur Cholim (comforting the ill and the dying) and the work of Caring Committees, and all aspects concerning the Jewish approach to the end of life, death & dying, the work of the Chevrah Kadisha (the Holy Society involved with preparation of the deceased for burial), care for the deceased, and comfort for mourners and those bereaved.


Our range of topics is very broad. As a part of what we include we consider Shmirah (watching or guarding) the body (and soul) of the deceased, burial preparations at ‘home’ or done ‘personally’ by family or community members vs. those provided by professionals, suitable locations for funerals and memorial services, the specifics of Jewish funerals and memorial services, all aspects of Jewish rituals, customs, and ceremonies, Jewish forms of mourning, comforting and supporting mourners, Jewish issues around cremation and other forms of non-burial, ‘difficult’ or complicated situations, ‘green’ funerals and cemeteries, concerns with care for and ownership/maintenance/regulation of cemeteries and Jewish burial locations, the fees and costs associated with funerals, and other related matters, with an emphasis on first person stories. Our goal is to draw attention, inform, raise interest, educate, and encourage others to learn more about the work that we do, to consider calling on the organizations that do this work in their community at their time of need, and perhaps to consider becoming involved in this work in their own community.


We are not limited other than by what our authors choose to cover.


Kavod v’Nichum (Hebrew for “honor and comfort”) uses education and advocacy to empower Jews of all backgrounds to reclaim the mitzvot (“commandments” or “good deeds”) of honoring the dead. The organization ensures that local groups and congregations can support mourners through traditional Jewish activities and rituals in ways that are accessible and relevant to today’s Jewish community. Kavod v’Nichum helps the Jewish community engage with traditional practices while giving individuals the information they need to adapt those traditions in their own meaningful ways.

Kavod v’Nichum encourages and assists the organization of bereavement committees and Chevrah Kadisha groups in synagogues and communities so that they can perform Jewish funeral, burial, and mourning mitzvot; protect and shield bereaved families from exploitation; and provide information, education and technical assistance. Kavod v’Nichum is the premier North American organization providing assistance, training, and resources about Jewish dying, death, funeral, and bereavement practices for Chevrah Kadisha groups and bereavement committees in synagogues and communities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Kavod v’Nichum also works to expand and adapt its manuals and resources to serve the needs of a diverse Jewish community, taking into consideration emerging concerns such as interfaith, same-gender and other non-traditional families, transgender persons, and those interested in “green” burials.

Kavod v’Nichum was recognized and named as one of the 50 most innovative and cutting edge Jewish Organizations for 2013-2014 in the Slingshot guide (http://www.slingshotfund.org/overview/). Organizations included in the Guide are identified as driving the future of Jewish life and engagement by motivating new audiences to participate in their work and responding to the needs of individuals and communities – both within and beyond the Jewish community – as never before. The Slingshot Guide has become a go-to resource for volunteers, activists and donors looking for new opportunities and projects that, through their innovative nature, ensure that the Jewish community remains relevant and thriving. Organizations included in the Guide are evaluated on their innovative approach, the impact they have in their work, the leadership they have in their sector and their effectiveness at achieving results. “The groundbreaking organizations that we highlight in the Slingshot Guide are game-changers in the realms of community engagement, social justice impact, and religious and spiritual life. The Slingshot Guide is not just a book listing organizations doing interesting things; it’s a resource relied upon by doers and donors alike. It’s the framework for a community that through the collaboration that results from inclusion in the Guide, becomes something significantly more effective than what each of the individual organizations can achieve on their own” according to Will Schneider, Executive Director of Slingshot.

Kavod v’Nichum’s website (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/about-kavod-vnichum) offers the most comprehensive resource available for Jewish end-of-life matters. The organization provides technical assistance and educational materials, and organizes Chevrah Kadisha (“holy society”) groups at the local level to perform Jewish funerals and mourning activities. Kavod v’Nichum also hosts the North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, the only annual gathering of its kind (http://jewish-funerals.org/north-american-chevra-kadisha-and-jewish-cemetery-conferences).


The Gamliel Institute (http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute) is the foremost center for study, learning, advocacy, and leadership training concerning Jewish end of life practices. The Institute is a project of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort). The Gamliel Institute offers distance learning classes using the latest and best technology for rabbis, cantors, medical and health professionals, lay leaders, and other interested persons from across North America. These courses prepare individuals to assist grieving families and to train volunteers within their communities to perform Jewish end-of-life rituals and support members of their community.

It is the only institution (of which we are aware) that offers rigorous instruction at a graduate level in courses on the topics of the History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha; Taharah & Shmirah; Education, Organizing & Training a Chevrah Kadisha; Nechama (Comforting); & Ritual Practice. The Covenant Foundation has recognized the value of the work that the Gamliel Institute does by awarding a multi-year grant to fund the development of the fifth (and final) course in the curriculum on the subject of Ritual Practice (to be taught starting in Spring 2015). The Gamliel Institute offers a variety of ‘Taste of Gamliel’ sessions, class sessions focusing on specific topics, such as Complicated Taharot, Infection Control, Non-Traditional Mourners, and Taharah Liturgy.


The Gamliel Institute was founded in 2010, and began offering courses to the first cohort of students in October of that year. There have now been multiple cohorts, and at this point there are six courses that comprise the instruction cycle of the Gamliel Institute.

  1. The History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha
  2. Taharah & Shmirah
  3. Education, Organizing, and Training
  4. Nechama
  5. Ritual Practice
  6. International Perspectives

Each course is twelve sessions (except the sixth, which is six sessions and a travel period of over 2.5 weeks), and requires extensive reading, preparation, chevrutah study, writing, and hands-on work. Several of the courses also require development of a project in an area selected by and of deep interest to the student, usually something that will actually be implemented and used in their community, and possibly replicated elsewhere.


We have invited those who are involved in this sacred work to submit items for this blog. Among those who have joined us are some the officers, staff, and members of Kavod v’Nichum, Administrators, Instructors, and students in the Gamliel Institute, and others who wish to participate. We welcome original submissions by the author, but reserve the right to accept or reject, publish as is, edit, or modify the submission. The author retains the copyright to the work in regard to any other publishing of that material so long as they include a notice that the work originally appeared in the Kavod vNichum blog Expired and Inspired, but Kavod v’Nichum has full rights to reproduce and use with attribution any item that it publishes as part of this blog, for the purposes of instruction, inclusion and display on our website, or as part of training materials, newsletters, or other publications we produce and distribute.