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Jewish Death Practices:
Learning & Resources:
Escorting the Dead
"Chayei Sarah" Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
November 19, 2005
By Gloria Blum
Today's torah portion is called "Chayei Sarah," which means Sarah's life, even though the portion concerns Sarah's burial place. Rabbi Gunter Plaut says that Sarah's life of 127 years was such a full life that we refer to her death as part of her life.
Abraham had a responsibility to provide for his wife Sarah and himself during their life, so too in their death.
This portion is the first reference in the bible to burial. The conscientious way Abraham went about securing the proper burial place for Sarah and later for himself at Machpelah in has made honoring the dead a distinguishing feature among Abraham's descendants.
Family or tribal burial vaults were common in ancient times but Abraham realized that he was desperate for had no land that he could legally claim, not even a gravesite to call his own. He was forced to go to strangers to do what he could not do for himself - to obtain a mere piece of Earth. This purchase of the cave at Machpelah was another test for Abraham.
He went to speak to Ephron who presided over the Hittite council or parliament to purchase the cave and field at Machpelah in Canaan which faces Hebron . Ephron gave Abraham permission to select any of the two story vaults. It was important that Abraham appear humble before the Hittites to ensure that they didn't challenge his status and deny his request. He bowed low to the Hittites when offered any choice of vault. Ephron then insisted that Abraham take the burial site for free. Abraham didn't want a gift; he needed a purchase title like any citizen. Abraham responded, "I will pay the price of the field."
Ephron responded, "My Lord, a piece of land worth 400 shekels of silver, what is that betwixt me and thee? Bury your dead." For our reference as to the relative value of 400 shekels of silver, in that time a working man earned 6-8 shekels of silver a year. At that price, such a man would have to work 50 years to earn 400 shekels of silver. Ephron the Hittite took full advantage of the situation by asking such a high price. Even so, Abraham weighed out 400 shekels of silver before the Hittite Parliament so that the transaction was duly witnessed and was an assured contractual purchase following a definite legal pattern known in the ancient Near East. Abraham declared to the council and Ephron, "400 shekels of silver, current money at the going merchant's rate." What Abraham probably said to himself was, "Let no one claim that this land was stolen!"
According to Genesis, all the Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs except for Rachel were buried in Machpelah. When we visited the site, we saw Adam and Eve's grave, too. The cave at Machpelah is regarded with immense respect by the Moslems since their patriarch Abraham is buried there. They built a large mosque over it. Visiting the cave at Machpelah in Hebron is fraught with considerable difficulties for Jews nowadays.
Meth-Mitzvah, the care of the unburied body of a friendless man or woman takes precedence over all other commandments. The ceremonial washing of the body, the Chevra Kaddisha and burial soon after is the Jewish method of disposal of the dead.
Here we are, a Jewish community on an island in the Pacific Ocean . As Abraham watched over his tribe and family, we watch over each other in sickness, in health. We congregate to celebrate together passages in life; we celebrate weddings, births, circumcisions, bar/bat mitzvahs, anniversaries and like Abraham, we mourn and provide completion and support for the family in burying our dead.
To illustrate the latter, I wish to share how in 1998, Congregation Kona Beth Shalom provided a Chevra Kaddisha at the passing of our beloved KBS board secretary Pauline Donovet.
*This is a true story, a story about my initiation into "The Honored Friends Society" for the dead, the Chevra Kaddisha.
It all began when the telephone rang to tell us that Pauline passed away at the age of eighty-five. Pauline lived independently and was the secretary of our Jewish Congregation in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. She was an observant Jew and took special pleasure in observing the Sabbath as well as all the other Jewish holidays.
I hardly knew Pauline but what I knew I liked. She was a mensch (a person having integrity). Even so, when we were informed that she had passed on, I didn't feel particularly sad. She had lived a full long life. Her family and community loved her. Now she was free of all the illness and discomfort she had endured. So it was okay with me that she was ready to move on. I continued to go about my day when the phone rang again. It was the Rabbi from Honolulu asking my husband to ask me if I would participate and arrange for three Jewish women to take part in Pauline's ritual bath before she was buried.
My initial response was, "Why me? Why not her women friends?" I phoned every woman on the island whom I knew was her age and her friend. Each one had a reason why she couldn't and wouldn't participate; "My heart couldn't take it. It would kill me." ... "I'm still trying to get over my husband's death. I can't take any more."
I reassured each woman, "I understand. It's important for you to be true to yourself." I also understood that being older doesn't guarantee that one may be spiritually mature enough to take on this ritual. It began to dawn on me that I was the one to lead the ritual bathing for Pauline.
One of my closest friends who knew and loved Pauline volunteered her services. I reluctantly declined her offer because I had been instructed that the women absolutely had to be Jewish. I was still alone on this mission. Then it hit me that I was going to know the intimacy of touching a dead naked body. What was I taking on? Was this for me?
I needed guidance from another female. I phoned a wise friend to share my dilemma. A Mormon, she had performed similar bathing rituals for the deceased. She made it sound like a neat thing to do for someone. I was feeling torn: I didn't want to miss out on an honor of a lifetime and I was squeamish about touching a three day frozen dead naked eighty-five year old woman's body.
As Virginia spoke to me on the phone, I gazed up and to the right and witnessed a most remarkable presence: a vibrant yellow energy, almost sparkling, which reminded me instantly of Pauline's blond hair. I sat there in a state of awe when a voice spoke to me. I heard not with my ordinary hearing but a different kind of listening. I received a very important message from Pauline. She said, "I will be here for you as you are here for me." I felt my soul quicken. I was touched to the core. I bowed my head honoring her presence. I heard myself speaking aloud, "How sweet. How very sweet. Thank you. Of course I will be here for you." From that moment my mind was made up to lead the Chevra Kaddisha as "The Honored Friend" of the dead.
I looked it up in a Jewish encyclopedia and it said the Chevra Kaddisha is a "holy sisterhood" for the females who pass on, and a "holy brotherhood" for the males. "Escorting the dead" ranks among the basic humanitarian deeds. Burial Society members who volunteer their services are considered to be performing an "act of true kindness" for which no reward or reciprocation can be expected. In Judaism, burial of the dead is deemed a religious commandment, a mitzvah, one that takes precedence even over the study of Torah.
The Rabbi filled me in on ritual bath procedure and again encouraged me to find two or three more Jewish women to complete the ritual bath team.
I phoned Ligia, a young architect and artist from Rumania whose father was a Holocaust survivor. Ligia immediately agreed to assist. The second woman to accept was Carolyn, an unpretentious and loving massage therapist originally from the East Coast. Without hesitation she said, "I'm honored to be asked and I would love to assist you." The trio of Jewish women was in place.
In honor of Pauline's love for the Sabbath, I wanted the ritual to be completed on Friday afternoon before the Sabbath began. The place would be the hospital morgue, even though it had no accommodations for our ritual. There was not even a drain in the floor.
The keeper of the morgue initially told me that two men from the hospital staff would help us lift and stand Pauline up while we provided a continuous flow of water over her head. I requested instead two women from the hospital staff for the sake of modesty. Two gentile nurses I knew graciously offered their services. I wanted to do what was right according to correct ritual for Pauline's sake, yet I felt uncomfortable separating myself from these two female friends because they weren't Jewish.
The two nurses hoisted Pauline out of the freezer and placed her on a gurney. Her body was frozen with indentations from the surface upon which she laid. Clearly, there was no life left in this old body. The three of us gasped as we saw blood that had come out of her nostrils where there were still tubes connected. Ligia became faint. The nurses suggested we leave the morgue room while they cleaned things up and return in five minutes.
We steadied Ligia out of the room as tears streamed down her face. She whispered, "It didn't hit me until I saw the blood."
We returned to the morgue and covered her corpse with a white sheet. It struck me funny that Pauline's right foot casually rested on her left ankle. I grabbed Pauline's ice-cold right big toe and lifted her foot up and placed it alongside her left foot.
Five women encircled Pauline's body. Because the morgue was contaminated, each of us wore surgical suits, masks, booties and gloves. We all looked the same dressed in the ritual garb of the operating room (or the High Priestesses). As instructed by the Rabbi, I said, "Pauline, we are doing this cleansing for your honor and ask your forgiveness if we don't do everything exactly as you would have wanted."
I closed my eyes and felt Pauline's presence and spoke the following words: "Pauline, your lifetime here has been completed. Mazel tov! May the Sabbath Bride embrace your essence and guide you in peace and harmony. Return to your Father. Feel His love for you and your love for Him. You are free! Enjoy! Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad," (Hear O Israel, the Creator our God, the Creator is One).
Then with my eyes closed, I felt myself ascend up a shaft of life (light) with the presence of Pauline to an open door filled with light. I went with her up to the doorway and lingered as Pauline passed through the light-filled door. How long did I linger? I was not in a world of time or space. Did I pierce the veil to eternal life? Something didn't feel right. I sensed something pulling at me. It was pulling me down. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was connected to something, but what? What and why was something tugging at me? In a flash I remembered. I had a body that I belonged in. I returned down the shaft of light to the density of my body, smelling the formaldehyde of the dreary morgue freezer room. I opened my eyes. I was stunned to see four tearful sets of eyes radiating love from behind their masks. These magnificent women were with me on this journey and they knew in their hearts where I had been. We were one. We were all equally "Jewish" in that moment together.
Next we stood Pauline up and with three buckets we poured a continuous flow of water over her head. Meanwhile someone had started pounding on the morgue door yelling for entrance with another corpse on a gurney needing refrigeration. I leaned my body against the door keeping it shut as the women laid Pauline back down and quickly toweled her entire body dry. As we put a special kosher cotton shroud on her, there came a second fist pounding on the door to the morgue. A second corpse was now waiting to get in and we felt the urgency to keep the ritual's momentum going. The nurses helped me shove the door shut and lock it as everyone completed the process of fitting the little white bonnet onto Pauline's head and I tied the strings under her chin.
When we finished, I noticed that Pauline had again crossed her right foot over her left which made me laugh, thank God. She was independent to the end.
The five of us joined hands with Pauline as Carolyn thanked Pauline and God for the honor of participating in this sacred ritual. We silently removed our surgical garb. We sensed Pauline was comfortable and complete now.
Feeling numb, Carolyn, Ligia and I sat silently in Ligia's car unable to move. Now, mission accomplished, I could allow myself to feel. My defenses dissolved as the impact of our experience hit me. Uncontrollable tears burst from my eyes consoling and cleansing my soul.
We drove back to my house and drank Slivovitz, listened to and sang "My Yiddishe Momma" and shared a light, nourishing, quiet lunch together.
Several days later we attended Pauline's funeral. The Rabbi greeted me warmly asking, "How did it go?" My response surprised me. "It was an honor for us but I feel as though I lost my virginity." A feeling of having lost something I didn't know I had...my innocence...forever gone. The Rabbi understood immediately.
Permit me to add some follow-up to this story of Pauline.
**Several years passed since Pauline's death when I had the desire to visit Prague . The capital of the Czech Republic , once called Bohemia , it was again a blossoming city where the creative spirit was in renaissance. My husband shared this desire so off we went.
Early in the morning of May 8th, 1997, six days into our journey, I had this impulse to go to the Jewish section of downtown Prague . When we arrived at the central office, a smiling woman approached me and said, "Today you must go to Terezin." I turned to Barry and said, "Today we must go to Terezin." Tuned in, he immediately agreed even though we weren't planning to go on that particular day. We bought our tickets and boarded the van. Terezin (also called Thereisenstadt) had been a "model" concentration camp located 40 minutes outside of Prague .
I wanted to visit there ever since I directed the children's play, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," by Celeste Raspanti, about the children who passed through Terezin on their way to extermination. Only one hundred out of the 100,000 children survived, but many of their safely buried drawings also survived and are now on exhibit.
When we were on the van, we learned that on this very day in 1945, Terezin had been liberated from the Nazis. "Oh, what a coincidence" I thought, knowing full well about the realities of synchronicity.
Terezin, a former fortress, was used by the Nazis as a holding camp before transporting the Jews and other "undesirables" off to Auschwitz . It was used for propaganda to impress the Red Cross. They filmed documentaries to show the world how humane the Nazis were; how well the prisoners of war were being treated. We saw how they filmed prisoners happily cheering soccer teams; clean, neatly dressed people playing chess; an orchestra of prisoners performing for the captive audience. Prisoners laughing, healthy and enjoying life, but just until the Red Cross and filmmakers left. Then everyone in the films were boarded onto trains for extermination.
The prisoners in Terezin didn't know what happened to the people who left. They believed that they, like themselves, would be placed in a better living location to work hard and live, like the sign said at the entrance to the fort, "Arbeit Mach Frei" (work makes you free).
We entered the camp and walked into the large rooms that had housed too many people at once. I sensed hope everywhere... hopeful waiting.
As we walked past one particular room, my teeth started to hurt. I asked about that room and was informed, "In that room they tortured people."
Later, the tour took us to the cemetery and crematorium. When I approached the area, an unforeseen and extraordinary experience took place. On this expansive lawn with a few head stones, I perceived an energy... energy clinging to the earth... hopeful energy... patiently waiting hopeful energy holding onto the grass... holding onto the earth! I saw the energy of souls clinging, grasping onto the earth. I saw the energy of souls holding onto the earth hopefully waiting... waiting... waiting for what? For whom?
I closed my eyes and stood there. In an instant, the shaft of life, light, that was there for Pauline opened up and I witnessed my soul announce to those hopefully waiting souls, "Today is May 8th and today you are liberated! You are liberated to go home to your Maker! You are liberated to go home to love, to comfort and safety. You are free! You are free! Go home!"
I then heard the sound of hundreds of souls shush up the shaft of life returning to our Creator, our home. The shaft of light remained open for the slower ones to take leave and claim their freedom. I felt them enter the door of light into the heavens.
I don't know how long it was before I felt it was time for me to return to my body and open my eyes. I opened my eyes slowly and to my astonishment I was surrounded and encircled by three young Jewish women with their eyes closed. I looked at their beautiful youthful faces as each opened their eyes, stunned. I had never spoken with these women before even though they were passengers in our van. I asked them, "Why did you encircle me?" They simply said, "It felt like the right thing to do."
I felt shocked by the synchronicity of this experience as we boarded our van to drive to a local restaurant for lunch. When the time came for dessert, we were each served a fruit salad topped off with whipped cream and a different plastic miniature zoo animal.
Each person at the table put their little plastic animal on a plate in the center of the table to congregate. The first person placed an elephant on the plate, the second a camel, the third an ox, the fourth a donkey, the fifth a rhino, the sixth a monkey, next a hippo and last, I placed my dessert animal... the giraffe, the animal with its head in the heavens!
I believe this was God's way of telling me that I was chosen as an honored friend of the dead for which I am grateful.
I don't think I could have performed the mitzvah for Pauline with Ligia, Caroline and Michelle without my mother's preparation growing up. My Momma in her wisdom prepared her children not only for life but also for death. Death wasn't a word whispered in fear as in the Neil Simon plays when every time the characters in the family would mention the word cancer it would be whispered "cancer" to keep away the evil eye.
Members of my family took and still do take pride and comfort in knowing that they fully paid for their grave plot in advance at the United Hebrew Brotherhood Cemetery in Minneapolis . Bubbie Bella would kvell over her wonderful plot as though it was a spacious luxury apartment high-rise. We all cracked up laughing at her innocent excitement.
My mother would take great pleasure in sharing her list of "who gets what when she dies". She'd say in her much imitated Yiddish accent, "Daughter-in-law Faye gets mine mink stole; daughter-in-law Shelly gets the diamond cocktail ring Pa gave me; mine daughter Shelly gets mine big diamond engagement ring and all my land investments."
I'd ask her at the end of her list, "Ma, what do I get?" And she'd say, "Gloria, you get nothing." I'd say, "Why nothing?" She'd say, "You get nothing because you married a doctor... (you already have everything)."
Renee Frank Holtz, RJE, PhD, Coordinator of Academic Support for the Middle School at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, said: "When we contemplate our own passing, we ask ourselves what of significance we are leaving behind. Thoughtful consideration of this question can be a gift to ourselves as well as to future generations who will benefit from our legacy. In some ways we may not have much to leave behind, but in others we can plant seeds that will love on long after we are physically gone. We can reflect on the lessons we have learned and pass those on by telling stories, writing letters or simply by being an example worthy of emulation. Some people would rather have the joy of passing on their material possessions while they are alive. As Abraham understood, the manner in which we prepare for death and honor our dead in fact can sustain the living."
* from Escorting The Dead, copyright © 1998 Gloria Itman Blum
** from Escorting the Dead at Terezin, copyright Ó 1998 Gloria Itman Blum