In 2010, our family spent 11 days in hospice, accompanying our mother and wife to the end of her life as the body that had held her soul for more than seven decades succumbed to disease after an excruciating seven weeks of illness. After she died, our rabbi asked if we wanted to arrange for shmirah—individuals to watch over her body until burial. Without missing a beat, my father, my sister, and I said “yes.” We knew, deep in our own souls, that our beloved “The Mums” would have appreciated the presence of shomrim during this liminal time.
What we did not know, was how comforting it would be for us. As we completed the necessary arrangements at the funeral home, we could hear, in a nearby room, the familiar voice of a longtime family friend reading Psalms as she sat with the body of our beloved. With the details handled, we returned home to wait out the time until the funeral. Throughout those long hours of disbelief and breath-stopping grief, we were consoled, knowing that shomrim were with The Mums.
Recently, when the rabbis of two New York City congregations—Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan and Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn—joined forces with students from the Reform Movement’s seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and Plaza Jewish Community Chapel to create a chevra kadisha to serve Reform congregations in the five boroughs, I signed on. Intrigued and open to the possibilities, I welcomed the opportunity to be in on the ground-floor formation and launch of the first sacred community that will not only prepare and guard bodies of the deceased before burial according to Jewish tradition but also will have the freedom and expertise to do this work in ways that extend beyond the customs of Orthodox chevrot kadisha (plural of chevra kadisha), which currently are the only option in New York City.
After an introductory meeting at Plaza in late October, I thought often about what we had seen and heard that evening, finding renewed appreciation for the Jewish rituals around death and burial and the ways they so intentionally honor the deceased and offer compassion to the living. Earlier this week, our fledgling group participated in hands-on training at HUC-JIR led by staff and volunteers from Kavod v’Nichum. Hebrew for “honor and comfort,” this non-profit organization provides education, support, and training around end-of-life rituals and practices in our tradition. For more than three hours, we learned about and then practiced the rituals to prepare a body for burial. We did so without water or the necessary equipment but with help from gracious volunteers who served as—meit (masculine), meitah (feminine), and meiteh (non-binary)—the deceased.
We began with the physical washing of the body, reciting passages from Song of Songs to remind us that we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, beautiful in body and spirit. Physical washing was followed by ritual washing. Known as taharah, purification, this spiritual cleansing restores the soul of the deceased to the state of purity it was in when the person entered this world. A prayer that highlights the power of water to purify and sanctify, Amar Rabbi Akiva, is recited as part of taharah. In addition, when the purifying waters washed over the body, we repeatedly recited, depending on the gender identity of the deceased, t’hora hi (female), tahor hu (male), or t’horeh heh (non-binary) to mark the moment of transformation to a state of ritual purity.
Finally, we dressed the body for burial in tachrichim, loose-fitting, white linen or cotton garments, including a kittel or burial shroud, a ceremonial, collared, knee-length jacket without pockets that some observant Ashkenazi Jews, mostly men, wear on Yom Kippur, when leading a Passover seder, or under the chuppah on their wedding day. The tachrichim are designed to replicate the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest during Temple times, and to show that all are equal in death.
Although the how-tos of caring for the body and performing taharah are certainly important, the most valuable lesson in our training concerned our intention or kavanah in carrying out this holy work. Because none of the rituals performed by a chevra kadisha is rooted in halacha or Jewish law, it is not possible to do anything the “wrong way.” Twice during the process, once before the group begins its work and once after it has finished, the members recite the mechilah prayer, speaking directly to the deceased, to ask forgiveness for anything they might do or might have done that falls short of bringing honor and respect to body and soul. For these reasons, those who were present from Kavod v’Nichum assured us that we are ready to begin. (Initially, the Reform chevra kadisha will focus on preparing bodies for burial and will add shmirah later.)
In the coming weeks, as we move toward February 15, the projected launch date, our chevra kadisha will continue to solidify itself by compiling a manual of readings and prayers to codify our own customs; organizing a notification system for members; and training individuals as leaders (rosh, rosha, rosheh) to ensure the physical and emotional safety of the entire team and that its members show honor and respect to the deceased; follow Jewish customs; and adhere to the desires and practices of the funeral home.
Our training session closed with this blessing of the hands: “Bless these hands for the kindness they show, for the holiness they embody, for the mitzvot they enact.” I am honored to participate in this sacred undertaking but am not without trepidation. My heart is fully in, and with time, experience, and the camaraderie of others, I believe my hands, too, will faithfully enact the mitzvah of taharah.