Pulling back the curtain on one of Judaism’s most private and honorable portions of Jewish life, the Chevra Kadisha (holy society) performs anonymously, with great reverence.
Noting Gemara Shabbat 127a, ..”The fruits of which a man (in this case woman) enjoys in this world while the principal remains to enjoy in the world to come: …accompanying the dead to the grave…” Teams of Atlanta women serve through their synagogues without acknowledgment, some even from the family of the deceased. Men have their own Holy Society and aren’t addressed here.
The central tahara ceremony consists of washing, purifying, and spiritually dressing the body in a shroud, placing it in the coffin and protecting it from desecration from things like dirt or jewelry. If one is buried in her tallis, one corner is removed.
Prayers and psalms are recited. Note that this role is separate from the Shomrim, who sit with the body. Judith, who has participated at both Etz Chaim and B’nai Torah said, “This is a very holy ‘hands on’ experience, very intimate. No chit chatting, done with gentleness and kind expressions. It’s akin to shoveling dirt on the grave. No ‘thank yous.’ It’s the right thing to do, and it’s between you and G-d.”
Drawn by a friend’s passion, Susan, of Temple Emanu-El, recalled that she was a bit shy at first, but observing, she saw the beauty, and eased her way into the experience.
She stated that she might get a call to come a few hours ahead of time, then segue into an activity like Mahjong,
“No one knew the difference when I arrived to play. It wasn’t something I would share. I helped bathe the body…..we all worked together quietly without discussing roles. We knew the steps that take place coming naturally after doing it awhile. It has definitely made me think more about the transition from living into the unknown. “Another source stated that she observed a friend in the Holy Society leave an event dressed in an evening gown to return some 90 minutes later to resume the party unexplained.
Denise, “rosh” (head) of the women’s Chevra Kadisha at Congregation Shearith Israel, served in the medical field for many years. She also studied at the Gamliel Institute, a center for study, training, and advocacy concerning Jewish end-of-life practices.
She contributed: “Women support their Jewish communities in a variety of ways; being a part of a Chevrah Kadisha is yet another time-honored way to serve. Thirty-five years ago I was invited to join Chevra Kadisha in performing a tahara on a deceased congregant. As a practicing nurse-midwife, I intuitively felt this was midwifing at the other end of the arc of life. I was keenly aware of feeling privileged to assist in this transition. Since then, I have become more active in our Chevrah Kadisha. Our synagogue’s women’s society has 20 active members (equivalent to the men’s group). Down to the last member, we feel that this is a unique and important way to support our community through this age-old mitzvah.”
Gail, of Ahavath Achim Synagogue, who began in 1975, recalled, “I started with much trepidation about my mental ability to do it, but I found it to be one of my most meaningful experiences. Imagine having the opportunity to make sure someone truly will ‘rest in peace.’ It was bonding with the deceased as we cleaned and prepared, dressed the body in a white shroud and placed it lovingly into the coffin saying appropriate prayers. Tahara is the last mitzvah you can do before the burial. It is a service of love and caring with the only expectation being that the deceased looks angelic and is comfortable at rest.”
Delcy, Chevra Kadisha coordinator at Ahavath Achim who describes her service as life altering, said, “This ‘Act of Lovingkindness’ is filled with tradition, respect, dignity, and compassion. I was approached 30 years ago and felt compelled to say ‘yes’ to expand my horizon in Jewish traditions. I came to the U.S. as a teenager from Egypt without the opportunity to learn much about Judaism. Being a member of Chevra Kadisha has developed my self-growth and allowed me to face my own mortality. As an aside, I was working for Hospice and felt this experience advanced life’s natural culmination….. Life should not end in mediocrity, but rather with a sense of dignity! This act of “lovingkindness” is a declaration of caring for one another as Jews by performing the final act; getting them ready for their next journey. “
The whole subject strikes a powerful emotional chord. A local professional relayed, “My maternal grandmother died in the Lodz Ghetto in 1944, shortly after my mother turned 15. There was no one else. She performed tahara on her own mother.”
In terms of the initial shock value, Judith mused, “It’s startling at first, but like a surgeon, you get used to it knowing the extent of the good deed.” After the tahara, some report bonding moments to air feelings. “We have cried and smiled together.”