by Rochelle S. Elstein
published in Sh’ma
February 7, 1986
It seems peculiar that a Hevra Kadisha should have come into being in East Lansing, of all places. Mid-Michigan had no kosher butcher, no mikveh not even a real delicatessen. Yet when someone in the community approached the Hillel director to say that his mother-in-law was quite ill and would like to have a traditional burial, it was not difficult to get several volunteers to study with the rabbi and to become a kind of ad hoc burial society. Maurice Lamm’s book The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning served as our text; Rabbi Danny Allen was a resource for questions and suggestions. Having learned enough that we could offer to perform many of the more traditional rituals, we began to confront the problem of a cemetery, especially after it became clear that cooperation between the area’s two synagogues was not possible and that a new Jewish cemetery would be needed. That, too, became the responsibility of the Hevra Kadisha and a subcommittee explored every possibility from designating a section of the city cemetery for Jewish use, to purchasing plots in a private cemetery-one of which turned out to have a special section for pets! We certainly learned a great deal about the funeral industry in the course of our studies.
Blu Greenberg wrote, “It never ceases to amaze me who serves on the Hevra Kadisha. The group at Congregation Kehillat Israel was unusual especially in terms of the educational backgrounds of the participants: 3 physicians, 2 attorneys, assorted M.A.s and Ph.D.s from many disciplines, reflecting in large measure, the skewed academic and professional makeup of the synagogue’s membership but also reflecting the many ways in which the American Jewish experience is so different from that of Eastern Europe where members of the burial society were often the ne’er do wells of the shtetl.
Preparing to Serve despite Trepidation
To my knowledge, no one in the group could be characterized as Orthodox; no one was a shomer shabbat and, although we never discussed eschatology, I would be surprised if any of us believed in the physical resurrection of the dead, an assumption which seems to underlie many of the rituals which we performed. There was no question, however, that we would offer as halachically authentic preparation and burial as a family might request and, to that end, we not only read Lamm but we also contacted groups in Detroit and Chicago who provided assistance and encouragement. A Plain Pine Box, the videotape made by the Congregation of Aaron in Minneapolis was useful and the members of the Minneapolis group helped us secure suitable caskets when commercial channels proved ineffective. Other than purchasing the new cemetery section which we were just beginning to explore, we had everything we needed the first time we were called upon
Kehillat Israel was a young congregation and we anticipated that we would be called upon to help families who were burying elderly parents before we would be serving our own members. At least that was what we had hoped, although we knew, for example, that Arlinda had been operated on for a brain tumor and the implications of her condition were clear. For those of us who have grown up in the hygienic milieu of mid-twentieth century America, death is a phenomenon far removed from our own lives and direct contact with a corpse an unknown experience. Hence it was with trepidation that I faced the prospect that sometime soon I would have to deal with a dead body. More difficult was the expectation that it might be someone I knew, someone young, someone whose death would affect me-a friend.
Facing the First Few Deaths
As it turned out, the first family that we served was unknown to most of us. The woman who had died was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia. When we learned that she had survived Auschwitz and died peacefully in her new homeland, we knew that the organizing and studying we had done was worthwhile. To be able to provide for someone who had endured so much suffering for being a Jew, to be able to do the preparations that meant so much to her, to attend to the needs of a Holocaust survivor in the midst of our comfortable, prosperous, secure community gave us a sense of being involved in something more cosmic than commonplace.
Alas, our first experience with taharah (washing) and shmirah (staying with the corpse) was not our last. Arlinda was an active participant when we washed and dressed Mrs. H’s body; the next time we met was to prepare Arlinda. She had faced cancer and, in battling it, helped others to cope; she left behind a group that she had founded that continues to help cancer patients to manage their illness and their lives. Because she faced her own demise with honesty and courage, she taught all of us on the bereavement committee that the care of the dying and the dead are part of what it means to be a Jewish community and to turn the tasks over to hospitals and undertakers is to deny our responsibility for one another and to deprive ourselves of involvement of the most meaningful kind.
What we Gave, What we Gained
It is difficult to serve on a Hevra Kadisha. The Jewish tradition teaches that contact with a corpse defiles us; it also perplexes us. Dead bodies look like people; they do not feel nor act like them. How we approach them, and how we prepare them, and finally how we bury them is very significant. Serving on the burial society also forces us to confront the inevitability of our own demise, a difficult and painful process.
When you have to die, someone has to take care of your body and the Hevra Kadisha are the people who do so. Perhaps what motivates the volunteers is a very keen sense of communal responsibility. But there is more to it. Few things bind people more closely together than coming together to deal with death and the members of a burial society do it more frequently than most of us. The closeness and mutual concern that developed in our group is undoubtedly widespread in other burial societies. One of our members, born in Germany, remembered that in his town, the Hevra Kadisha had an annual banquet, a yearly celebration for people who usually met in less than a celebratory atmosphere. We never did dine together but we did have much to celebrate: a tradition that deals wisely and directly with death, a group of people who were always ready when called upon, a wider Jewish community that helped and encouraged us, and people whose illness and passing taught us that life should be lived with courage and humor and compassion and, most of all, with friends. We were touched by all of them, most profoundly by Arlinda, who served with us and whom ultimately we served. May her memory be for a blessing. And may those who are searching for a way to serve the Jewish community in a most meaningful, committed and rewarding way join or establish a Hevra Kadisha.