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The C.K. Van



by Pat Franklin, LPC

The van came from Maryland bearing four Orthodox Jewish women.  Two of them were middle-age, and two were younger.  They were one of several Chevra Kadisha or Holy Society teams who travel to funeral homes around the metropolitan area to prepare deceased Jewish women for burial.  They performed this ancient Jewish custom, called Chesed Shel Emet or act of true kindness, at all hours of the day and evening as the need arose.

On this occasion, it was 9:00 P.M. on a weeknight.  The funeral home was in Northern Virginia.  The deceased was a member of my shul or synagogue.  I happened to be the shomer or guard from 8:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M.

Jewish tradition holds that it is disrespectful for the deceased to be alone.  Thus, congregants take turns sitting with the departed around the clock from the time he or she arrives at a funeral home until his or her burial.  Customarily, Psalms or other sacred literatures are read while on shomer duty.

Two other women from my shul arrived at 9:00 P.M.  Along with other congregants, they had been instrumental in forming the synagogue’s Chevra Kadisha.  They came to the funeral home in hopes of being allowed to observe the ritual washing, purification, dressing and placement of the deceased in the wooden casket known as the aron.  This overall process is called Taharah although the word actually means purification.

My congregation has not yet begun to perform Taharah for its members.  We have been in the process of learning the ritual requirements.  Our goal is to be able to provide this service in the future.

While we waited for our Orthodox sisters to arrive, my co-congregants invited me to join them to observe Taharah.  We wondered aloud what this experience would be like for us.  We had each been in the presence of deceased individuals before, but never had we been a part of burial preparations.  We assured one another that there would be no ill thoughts if one of us chose to leave the room.

The women from Maryland were very gracious, and agreed to let all three of us observe their preparations.  They understood that we wished to learn this mitzvah or good deed.

Their rules were simple.  What we heard and saw remained confidential. Questions would be answered after the rituals were completed.  Talking during the process was limited to the tasks at hand.  We were free to leave the room at any time if we were uncomfortable.

A candle burned in a corner of the room.  Its light served as a symbol of the women’s soul.  She lied covered on a table.

The women washed their hands in silence.  Hebrew prayers were recited before and during the different phases of the rituals.

The first phase was the washing of the body or Rechitsah for which buckets of water were prepared.  The women gently washed our sister’s face and hair, one side of her body, front and back, and then the other side.  Fingernails and toenails were also attended to.  The body remained covered except for the parts which were being cleansed.

Hands were washed prior to performing Taharah or the purification of the entire body via a flow of water which cascaded over the congregant.  She was then tenderly dried with towels.

The dressing or Halbashah of the deceased was next.  Tachrichim or the shroud was a multi-part garment of white cloth reminiscent of what the high priest wore during the days of the Temple in Jerusalem when he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.  Thus, a deceased person was addressed as a high priest during Halbashah.

A bonnet or mitsnefet covered the woman’s head and was tied beneath her chin.  A smaller cloth was placed over her face.

The michnasayim or pants had closed feet, and were tied at the waist with a sash.  A band of cloth was also tied around each leg below the knee.

The top or k’tonet was long-sleeved with an opening to be slipped over the head.  The neck of the blouse was tied closed with two bands.

Next was a long robe with sleeves and a collar called a kittel.  A sash or avnet was wrapped around the kittel.

A sovev or white cloth sheet was placed in the coffin.  Afar, soil from Israel, was scattered in the casket.  The women transferred our congregant from the table into the aron.

The Chevra Kadisha team leader sprinkled afar over the woman’s eyes, heart and genital area.  Pottery shards were placed on her covered eyes and mouth. The dirt and pieces of clay were reminders of the biblical verses in Genesis and Psalm 103 (Genesis 3:19:  “For dust you are and unto dust you shall return.”  Psalm 103:14:  “He is mindful that we are but dust.”)

Lastly the sheet was wrapped around our congregant’s entire body.  Prior to placing the lid on the aron, the team leader addressed the deceased: “…forgive us for any indignity that you may have suffered at the hands of this Chevra Kadisha, notwithstanding the loving care and concern that we exercised during this Taharah.”  The closing wish was that the woman would have a peaceful journey.

Hands were washed prior to wheeling our congregant into one of the funeral home parlors.  The burning candle was placed at the head of the coffin.  My replacement was present for her 2-hour shift.  She would be relieved at midnight by another congregant.  So it would go until the burial the following morning.

My shul-mates and I spoke briefly with the women about what we had observed. They answered the few questions we had.  We learned how meaningful this work was to them.  While each had done Taharah for varying lengths of time, these four women had not worked as a team before this night.  Their choreography never hinted that this had been their first Taharah together.

A minimum of paperwork was completed by the team and left for the funeral home.  The women were very appreciative of the knowledge about Judaism possessed by the non-Jewish owners of this funeral home.  The facility and supplies were also highly praised.

A final washing of hands was done.  Feeling a sense of shalom or peace, we wished one another well.  The van from Maryland drove off in the dark, its tail lights fading.