It is a truism that we moderns are uncomfortable dealing with death—and especially uncomfortable dealing with dead bodies. Troubled by the very idea of our own mortality, we try to avoid its reminders, among which an actual dead person is certainly the most powerful. So it is no wonder that among modern Jews, knowledge of, and interest in, the hevra kedisha (literally, holy society)—the group of lay volunteers who prepare a Jewish body for burial—has declined over time, or that membership in such a society, although considered by Jewish religious law to be among the most laudable of activities, is now often thought to be exclusively the province of the black-garbed ultra-Orthodox.
This is unfortunate, because Jewish law relating to the newly dead has much to teach us, as I myself have learned from experience. Ever since my best and oldest childhood friend died suddenly eight years ago, my interest had been piqued by the hevra kedisha. Until I married, however, my inclination to join such a group was dampened by my general squeamishness concerning medical matters, as well as by my uncertainty about the level of religious observance required for membership. (Although I attend an Orthodox synagogue, keep kosher, and observe the Sabbath, I do not adhere to every jot and tittle of Jewish law.)
My wife’s family, however, holds membership in the hevra in high regard. Her maternal grandfather participated in one in Germany, and her maternal grandmother was a member in Kansas City. (Men are allowed to attend only to dead men. Women technically are permitted to prepare both men and women for burial but, as a practical matter, women attend to women exclusively.) This heritage provided the impetus I needed, and thus one day I found myself volunteering on what I told myself was purely a trial basis. The rabbi assured me that one need not be a tzaddik—an especially righteous person—to join, only a committed Jew willing to do one’s best.
This tolerant approach may reflect the relatively late development of the hevra kedisha as an organized institution. The earliest mention is in the Talmud, which reports that Rav Hamnuna (ca. 290-320 C.E.), arriving in a city where someone had recently died, observed the inhabitants going about their business. Irate, he threatened to excommunicate them for violating the injunction that burial of the dead takes precedence over all else. But then, upon hearing that burial societies existed in the town, Rav Hamnuna concluded that ordinary citizens were indeed permitted to continue work. Rav Hamnuna’s ruling made the establishment of a hevra kedisha a top priority in most European communities. When Jews came to the United States, this was among the first institutions they established.
In Washington, where I live, many synagogues have their own hevra, contacted when a member of the community dies. Thus, a few weeks after my conversation with the rabbi, I was called upon to assist in my first tahara, or purification. When I arrived at the funeral parlor, I was told that the sixtyish man we were to prepare for burial weighed over 350 pounds, and had died of “chronic obesity.” I guiltily squelched an adolescent urge to grin, and was doubly chastened as I watched Ben, our team leader, a physician in his early thirties, call around asking for a few more volunteers to help us deal with the difficulties created by the weight of the met (dead person). His tone in discussing the met was intensely respectful, and this set the stage for what I was to learn was the paramount directive in this experience: to show reverence for the person who has departed.
Judaism has always considered burying deceased loved ones to be a mitzvah, a religious duty and good deed, of supreme importance. Traditionally this view is based on Abraham’s actions upon the death of his wife Sarah, when he turned to the neighboring sons of Heth and said, “A stranger and a sojourner am I with you; give me the possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead from before me.” This verse, the rabbis held, placed the responsibility for interment first on the family, and from there on the community as a whole. By the period of the Second Temple (ca. 465 B.C.E.-70 C.E.), according to the testimony of Josephus, to “let anyone lie unburied” was considered inhumane under Jewish law.
Jews try to bury their dead immediately, as befits a people whose origins were in the desert, where bodies decompose rapidly. The rabbinic teaching is that, unless necessary for the honor of the dead, “no corpse is to remain unburied overnight.” Today, in most cases, a Jew is buried within a day after having died. This custom allows the family to begin coming to terms with the loss as soon as possible. Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows that the time before burial is essentially a period of “limbo” (in Jewish tradition this condition is called aninut), and that only after the funeral can a family proceed with the difficult task of mourning.
As we walked to the room in the basement of the funeral parlor where we were to perform the tahara, we passed the shomer, or watcher, a man who stays with the recently deceased at all times. There are both practical and religious explanations for the constant presence of a shomer—as there are, incidentally, for most of the hevra’s ancient procedures. Practically, the shomer was originally needed to ward off mice and other animals that might inflict indignities on the corpse. He also may have helped guard against thieves who trafficked in dead bodies.
Today, when such considerations are less pressing, the shomer continues to serve a vital function. In the interval right after death and before burial, the deceased is especially vulnerable, having not yet reached a permanent “resting place” either in body or, so far as we know, in soul. (I well recall that when my friend died, his mother begged me to ensure that he was “not alone”; she did not want any further harm to befall his mortal remains.) The hevra has thus traditionally served to reassure the family that their loved one is being protected and cared for, a function reinforced by the custom of having the shomer be a respected and, presumably, well-known member of the community.
But this concern about the “address” of the newly dead is not solely for the sake of the surviving family. (Nor is it exclusively Jewish, as we can see in the proliferation of lawsuits against funeral parlors which confuse or switch bodies.) Judaism’s regard for the body itself lies behind the determination to ensure that it, in its wholeness, be accorded a place after death. This is but one of the many reasons why Jewish law prohibits cremation. Aside from manifesting a disregard for God’s handiwork, incinerating a body leaves it without any definable, knowable location in the world.
Although I was aware of some of these Jewish laws and customs concerning the body, I had never seen a dead person before. I was therefore quite fearful as I followed Ben and the four other members of our team down to the purification room in the funeral parlor. The room in which the tahara took place was in the basement, immediately adjacent to the embalming room. It was stark and relatively small, with two sinks, a cabinet, a drain in the middle of the floor, and a steel table that tilted for drainage purposes. Ben noticed my trepidation and reassured me: nothing was expected of a beginner other than to watch. I was free to do only what I felt comfortable doing and to leave any time I wanted. Ben warned us that smoking, eating, drinking, unnecessary talking, and praying near the body were all forbidden. Nothing was to distract us from the primary task at hand—preparing the met for eternal rest.
We entered the room, and there was the met, covered in a sheet, lying on a table. Ben explained the fundamental rules. As much of the body as possible is to be kept covered at all times, even while being washed. It is particularly important that the face and the genitals be shielded. At no time is it permitted to place the body face down. It is absolutely forbidden to pass anything over the body—a sign of profound disrespect, and a violation of the “personal space” of the met; if we had to give an item to someone on the other side of the table, we were to walk around and hand it to him.
The prohibition against passing objects over the met affirms the humanity of the person whose body is lying before us; it seeks to ensure that the members of the hevra continue to accord a dead person the respect normally given to those still alive. This consideration is by no means peculiar to Jews: for essentially the same reasons, people visiting a cemetery are reluctant to step directly on the spot where someone is buried. But in Jewish tradition the space above a met is reserved for him not only in the immediate vicinity but all the way “up to the heavens,” so that his path to the divine will not be impeded. This suggests that we should respect a dead person even more than we do a living one, precisely because, in death, the met is thought to come face to face with his Maker and Judge.
After Ben’s explanation of the procedures, we began by reciting the hamol (“forgiveness”) prayer, which asks God to take mercy on the met, pardon his transgressions, and allow him to rest with our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as the other righteous of Israel. Jewish prayers often characterize God as the reviver of the dead (in the time of the messiah); unusually, the hamol prayer adds that it is God Who causes the living to die.
Stealing glances during the prayer, I was surprised to observe that the met had a large tattoo. Since Jews are expressly forbidden by the Torah to tattoo their bodies, it seemed that this man had been far removed from Judaism in his life. And the distance became even more palpable when I heard his name—Yehudah ben (son of) Herman.1 In other words, Yehudah’s family did not even know his father’s Hebrew name. Yet here he was, tattoo and all, being prepared for burial just as his ancestors had been for millennia. The stark contrast between Yehudah’s apparently irreligious life and his choice to be buried in the ancient Jewish manner, in a shroud and in a closed, plain pine box, moved and confused me.
Ben assigned me the simple task of filling buckets with lukewarm water. The requirement that the water be set at the temperature at which most people feel comfortable taking a bath seemed yet another reminder that the met should be treated as sensitively as possible. Ben explained that the goal in a tahara is to replicate the immersion of the body in a mikvah (ritual bath). There are, again, at least two reasons for this ceremony. The first is ritual: to remove symbolically any impurity which the met might have brought upon himself during his lifetime. Humans can assist in eliminating this type of pollution, because it has arisen at the hand of man—i.e., the deceased. (The inherent impurity that comes from being a dead body, however, can be removed only by God.) The other reason is related to the vulnerability of the newly dead and the role of the shomer. Death completes the cycle of life. Practically the first experience of a baby is being washed and wrapped in swaddling clothes. It is fitting that this experience be mirrored in death.
Performing the tahara is uncomplicated. First, the entire body is fully washed, from head to toe, with water poured from a ladle back-handed, to indicate the sadness of the situation and that things are not “normal.” Even the fingernails and toenails of the met are cleaned. Then, to ensure that as much as possible of the person be covered with water at one time, washed-down white wooden planks are placed under the body to lift it off the table. The met is next doused with at least three buckets of water simultaneously. This is the actual tahara.
Turning the met first on one side, then the other, we washed the body according to the specified protocol: first the head, then the right side of the body starting with the hand, up the arm; then the left side, also starting with the hand; then the right side of the back, followed by the left side of the back.
I was struck by the common sense of the order. We are, first and foremost, identified with and by our face and head. Inside our head resides our brain, seat of our conscious mind and therefore also of our “personality” (that which makes each of us unique), while our face is what we present to the world, often expressing outwardly our innermost being. By the time we reach our thirties, our faces have started permanently to assume a shape that is determined by the expressions we have employed throughout our lives. Often more than our eyes, our lines and wrinkles are windows to our souls.
After the head and face, the second most important part of ourselves seen by the world is our hands. These, almost as much as our face, embody who we are. The laborer’s hands are calloused, the scholar’s soft. And moving from the face directly to the hands also stresses the connection between the spiritual and the physical. The hands make real the soul’s wishes. With our hands, we make love, hold our children, write, and mold the physical world in accordance with the dictates of our mind. It is therefore appropriate that we wash the head and hands for the last time in tandem.
While the others washed, I was given the task of cutting off every part of the covering sheet which contained any blood, so that it could be put in the coffin and buried with the met, as required by law. This rule is an extension of the strict prohibition against autopsies. Every part of a person—even a few spots of his blood on a sheet—is to be treated with equal respect and interred with him. Although the rule making the dead body inviolable has the effect of transforming every organ transplant into a difficult moral and legal question, it also establishes a very clear line, permitting transplants only under narrowly circumscribed conditions where there is an identifiable beneficiary.
In this case, the met had undergone a tracheotomy before death, and the endotracheal tube had to be removed before burial. (The tube was also placed in the coffin.) This proved somewhat bloody, and I quickly understood why my synagogue has a policy of having a doctor present at each tahara.
Although shifting the met onto the reclining table had not been difficult, placing the white boards under him and trying to establish a sufficient distance between him and the table to enable water to engulf him completely was somewhat trickier. Gently rolling the boards once we had placed them under the met, we were able to elevate him off the table.
We then performed the actual “immersion”—throwing the pails of water on the met while reciting a prayer that recalls Rabbi Akiva, one of the best-loved figures in rabbinic Judaism. It was Rabbi Akiva who opined that the Lord in heaven will cleanse those in need of purification. After the water was poured in a continuous stream over the departed, we recited in unison: “Tahor hu; tahor hu; tahor hu” (“He is purified; he is purified; he is purified”).
We next proceeded to dress the met in white linen garments, covered his head in a hood, and draped a tallit (fringed garment worn in prayer) around his shoulders. Judaism considers all people equal in death, and requires that everyone be treated alike. Ornate clothing, and fancy coffins, are expressly prohibited. This custom originated with Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel II (in the first half of the 2nd century C.E.) who, alarmed at the extravagance and expense of funerals, ordered that his own funeral be extremely simple.
We slipped the met in his white linen shrouds into the aron, or ark (a much nicer word than coffin, especially since it recalls the place where the Torah scroll is kept in the synagogue). Spread on the bottom of the aron was dirt from the Mount of Olives outside of Jerusalem, where Jews have been laid to rest since the time of the Temple. This custom is based on the statement in Deuteronomy that “the earth shall atone for His people”: the only earth believed capable of expiating the sins of the dead is that of the land of Israel.
Once the met was in the aron, we deposited pottery inside the head-covering, over his eyes. This is to address the mystics’ concern that as long as the eyes of the met look upon this world, he cannot properly focus on the world-to-come. We also sprinkled dirt on his head, heart, and sex organ. The dirt, like the clay pottery, reaffirms the scriptural injunction, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”
We next placed the cover on the aron, bringing the tahara effectively to an end. The law strictly forbids reopening the aron for any reason. One of the many explanations for Judaism’s insistence on a closed coffin is the lack of reciprocity inherent in the relationship between the met and those who remain alive. We may look at him, but he cannot see us. In this necessarily one-sided relation, we are voyeurs trafficking in the “disgrace” of his exposure. To prevent the dead person from being, as it were, embarrassed by his state, the coffin is closed.
The demand for a closed coffin is also another step in affirming the finality of death. It forces family members to begin thinking about the person as they will for the rest of their lives—as a memory; and it begins the separation process. It may also palliate the intensity of a family’s grief. Finally, the prohibition on an open coffin avoids any temptation to cosmeticize the dead, or to visit upon him indignities of the type prevalent in modern American funeral homes and practices.
After the coffin is closed, but before leaving, each person in the hevra is instructed to beg silent forgiveness of the met .This apology is made in case anyone has inadvertently performed a part of the tahara in a manner not in accordance with the personal customs of the met. Jewish law also requires that each person speak aloud the name of the met.
At first this requirement seemed a little silly to me. Were we to pretend that Yehudah ben Herman had his own “customs” with respect to the hevra kedisha—or that he had ever given a moment’s thought to ritual purification? The notion of us standing around a dead body uttering aloud his slightly ridiculous Jewish name made me uncomfortable, to say the least.
I was wrong. To accomplish any tahara requires a degree of distance from the met .That depersonalization ended the moment we spoke Yehudah ben Herman’s name. We were reminded that a man, like us, lay before us in the aron: a man with a wife, children, co-workers, friends, and loved ones who were affected by his death. The little custom of speaking Yehudah’s name drove home to me the genius of those who had formulated the rules. Just as the practices of the hevra reinforce the Jewish prohibition against autopsies or any other purely utilitarian use of the body, they guard against what Leon Kass of the University of Chicago has called the “commodification of human flesh.” The Jewish approach takes account of the powerful sense residing in every human being that the body should be respected, even after the person who inhabited it has left.
The rabbis describe participation in a hevra kedisha as a hesed shel emet (a true act of kindness), since no reward can be expected from the dead for whom the service is performed. Although the prospect of meriting such high praise may have been thought necessary in order to motivate people to join a hevra (or to ensure that only sincere people join), in my view the rabbis were being deliberately hyperbolic. Clearly the hevra experience does offer many rewards. For one thing, having esteemed members of the community care for a dead person makes an enormous difference to that person’s family. For another, the hevra sees to it that all people, high and low, are treated equally in death, and that their funerals and burial garments do not become a cause for ostentation. Finally, and perhaps most relevantly to our own day, the respect shown to a dead person by the hevra can affect profoundly the way those of us who remain alive view our own humanity. In all these regards, the laws of the hevra kedisha serve the dead and the living.
1 I have changed the actual name but preserved its flavor.