[Ed. Note: WARNING – This is not for the faint of heart or the squeamish.
This entry in our blog details some of the aspects of what may occur in what we refer to as a “Difficult Taharah”. Told from the perspective of one event at one Chevrah Kadisha, this speaks to the guiding principle of those who are members of the Chevrah Kadisha that ‘we do the best we can’ in the circumstances. Not infrequently, death is not pristine, and we are faced with unexpected or unusual situations. These events can be disturbing; they are certainly not something to be discussed lightly. I decided to publish this entry which addresses both the difficult Taharah, and the equally difficult decision to speak about it. — JB]
Taharah procedure is best conveyed by a CK participant relating their personal experience; anything else is a mere “clinical” explanation of the ritual steps and is little more than a dull iteration of tasks. The sacred aspect isn’t fully conveyed in any of the “manuals” that I’ve read. The word “spiritual” is overused and I choose to shun it. Always tending to our work carefully, it may look as if we’re helping someone get dressed for a special event which, indeed, we are. We wash and comb and pat dry and swath our meitah in fresh new garments. No lipstick and powder, no lace and perfume. Each time we follow the ritual tasks with ease and recite prayers and relevant poems yet we never think of it as being “routine”.
That night, I wrote the team saying that I was not thanking them for being there though, of course, it was very much like a thank you. It came to mind, but I didn’t use the “spiritual” word. I wanted to say that everybody had been brilliant but that sounded self-flattering. I finally wrote:
“S___ and I encountered a similarly complex meitah two years ago. We were a team of only two and worked for hours to do our best to serve her well. During that long night, we learned a lot of what NOT to do. Today’s taharah proved that knowing the ‘not to do’ is as important as knowing the ‘what to do.’
Today we brought four pairs of hands, four open minds and hearts, willing and determined; we took one step at a time. Your individual support and combined suggestions contributed all that was needed to complete our holy task. Together, we forged a unique and deeply affecting ceremony. We made necessary and appropriate adaptations, and devised creative substitutions that enabled us to complete a taharah full of grace.”
It was meaningful and rewarding to have persisted and succeeded, and I wondered whether our solutions should be shared with others? Would they be helpful or insulting? I thought about describing the details in a useful article for Expired and Inspired but then I thought our “solutions” might offend or be labeled as “Wrong. Wrong, Wrong.” I considered a “skeletal” essay but knew it would lack merit if it lacked detail. I decided to simply trust that future teams will manage to complete the ritual in ways they determine to be most fitting.
Over time, the value of the earlier challenging experience became increasingly clear and led me to recognize the importance of writing about the more recent one. I felt a certain responsibility to set it all down, to describe the actions we devised and the ways we chose to resolve each roadblock. You may see reasons to share this essay or more reasons to remain “mum.” Here is what I have written.
The tradition of developing minhagim is our inheritance from the hundred generations of women who preceded us in this task. Their legacy affords great latitude to each Chevrah Kadisha in decision-making with regard to both the spoken and procedural content of Tahara. Over the past nine years, our Chevrah has developed its own particular set of customs, our “minhag,” In the course of a single unusual taharah last November, by virtue of our commitment and out of necessity, we added to it.
We were a team of four that day. As founding members of our Chevrah Kadisha, S___and I had worked together uncountable times; it was the sixth taharah for our third member and our final volunteer had participated only once before. Years ago, we discontinued other than “on-the-job” training… experience continues to confirm the truth in the adage to, “Participate in one and lead the next.”
We entered the Taharah room and prepared it as we always do. Donning gowns, filling buckets, setting out the tachrichim. Ready to begin our “hands-on” work, we positioned ourselves around the table and drew back the sheet to discover that the meitah was sealed in a large zippered plastic bag. There’d been no mention of any unusual condition or special need but what now lay before us was unknown and not covered in any of the manuals.
The bag was opaque and, through it, we could see some areas that were dark in color. Concerned and wanting to limit contamination, I said I would unzip the bag and asked the others to not touch it at all. Leakage of some sort had caused the dark streaks in several places on the sheet which covered the meitah. We moved the sheet to the very bottom of the bag. She was resting on a sodden blanket, swathed in additional sheets. A pinkish-stained moist cloth covered her face. I suggested that the others might want to turn away. Everyone stood fast and alert as I lifted the cloth. Her mouth was filled with bloody liquid and there had been leakage from her nose as well. Neither her face nor head showed any sign of injury though she’d clearly suffered some sort of hemorrhage.
I’d been told that she died less than 24 hours earlier, after a long illness which was unnamed, unknown. Now her belly was bloated and her lower abdomen was green-tinged, her skin appeared stretched, almost transparent; many pain patches and various lines remained attached. A red tag wired to her big toe warned that “precautions should be taken when handling.” From a prior experience, S____ and I knew that moving her, even slightly, would cause further release of those body fluids.
Could we wash and “purify” our fragile meitah without causing further indignity or harm? We knew that she must remain encased. We cut away the blood-soiled sheets and placed them at the bottom of the bag. We removed the lines and patches that could be easily removed. Her toe nail polish was unremovable.
To clean her body, we took the softest cloths we could find and tore them into many small pieces. We dipped the cloths in the buckets filled for the taharah. Beginning at her right shoulder; we wet our cloths so we could wring out just enough water to clear away the blood and we patted her dry as we went.
The traditional pouring of nine kavim was out of the question. When the meitah was clean and fully uncovered for the taharah, cupping our hands, we scooped water from each bucket and did our best to provide an unbroken trickle; down the right, then the left and last, down the middle. “Tahorah hee, tahorah hee, tahorah hee,” we chanted throughout. We dried her gently and covered her with clean white towels to make sure the shrouds would not become soiled, and laid the tachrichim upon her, tying the customary ties. “Alef, Bet, Gimel, Daled.” We covered her face with a small towel and finally placed the veil and bonnet on her.
I went to the aron, sprinkled Jerusalem soil on the sovev and set the gartel crosswise, its ends draping over the sides. We moved her slowly, gently and carefully into the aron. We opened the bag to place the shards and sprinkle the remainder of the soil on her heart and reproductive organs. Without anything being said, we each moved the zipper part of the way until it was fully closed.
The long belt encircled the plastic bag at the place we believed to be her waist. “Alef, Bet, Gimel, Daled,” the prescribed knots were made and arranged. We closed the aron, tidied the room, offered our final words and departed. Everything felt right and we separated feeling grateful to have preserved her dignity and, due to our most unusual actions, we each knew with certainty that we had served her well.
Merle Gross says about herself: I’ve told my children what I would like etched on whatever stone marks my future grave: “She was fun while she lasted” (boldface intended). I know how serious a business Life is, and I don’t want to project an image of me as having been a party-girl, not at all. Simply put, a burial site, for me, is not where my memories of late loved ones reside. I hope that visiting my burial spot won’t feel important to my children—maintaining it? Yes; but visiting it? No. I hope their memories of me will attach to the places we’ve “experienced” together. So, maybe I’m reaching out from the grave to send a sly message, but a valid one, aimed at some passerby of the future. Perhaps someone coming to or leaving a funeral will read those words and understand that the late Me felt she had a gravely important message to convey which is, connect in “real” time with loved ones, and strangers, too. At a funeral, doesn’t every attendee hope that any sour, unpleasant memories will fade soon and be replaced with the treasured ones which, more likely, explain why we’re there?
In 2008, when our Conservative synagogue decided to establish a Chevrah Kadisha, my husband and I volunteered as “charter members”. Barry retired from law practice in 2010, I’d retired from business in 1994, when I sold my women’s clothing manufacturing company. From 1995 until today, I’ve recorded seventy oral history “interviews” as a trained volunteer in the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation Project, and I’ve had several enriching stints as guide and/or discussion facilitator for Facing History and Ourselves, and Chicago Historical Society exhibits.