It’s the bodies that haunt me. Each tells a story, shares a history. Scars from cuts or C-section births, bruises from blood draws or recent falls, surgical incision lines.
The first Meitah (deceased woman) I saw with her mouth agape and her body wrinkled, was in her 90s. As a new member of the Chevrah Kadisha (CK), I was given the job of holding the meitah’s head while others performed the rituals of Taharah (ritual purification). I felt awkward and fairly useless, but I came back for more.
For the next Meitah, who was over 100, her daughter and granddaughters wanted to participate. Our Rosha (leader) agreed and assigned a task to each one. It was moving to see them lovingly tend to their mother/grandmother. They wanted to put some things in the casket and I was able to tell them when it was time.
The next woman was someone I had known. Her wispy hair and balding head explained why she always wore a wig. It was strange to be part of the Taharah team for a woman whom I knew in life, now laying lifeless on the table. For her, a fellow team member suggested that I “tuck her in” to the aron. It was hard, but I felt good about it. The next day, I attended her funeral and later that week, paid a shiva call. It seemed like participating in the “trifecta” of death through Taharah, the funeral, and shiva (visiting to support the mourners in their home).
There have been others afterwards, but none as difficult as a young woman about the age of my daughter. Her body was thin, her hip bones protruded. She had perfect-shaped breasts (implants?), manicured nails, and full makeup. I learned some of her story as we worked and more later from a friend. The Meitah suffered from a fast-moving cancer. Her father took her everywhere for treatment and eventually, she achieved remission. She returned to her life and met a wonderful man to whom she became engaged. They planned a large, lavish wedding. The cancer returned. The fancy wedding was cancelled in favor of a more modest one. Then she died.
Every body tells a story. Sometimes we know the story, sometimes we don’t. But we always treat them as if we know, with respect and good intentions. It just seems more meaningful to me when we learn something about the life before us, and see not just the body.
Sheryl Slone Tarkoff is a lifelong Chicagoan. She attended Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, earning a BA in Judaic Studies from Spertus College, a Master of Education from the University of Illinois, and a Certificate of Advanced Studies from the University of Chicago. Sheryl is currently a student in the Gamliel Institute. She retired as associate director of Continuing Medical Education at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in 2006. Sheryl and her husband are members of Anshe Emet Synagogue, where she serves on the Chevrah Kadisha. Their children and grandchildren live in Boston.