Practice makes perfect when it comes to preparing the dead for burial.
The Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha of Philadelphia experienced a night of the living dead — well, sort of.
The group held a two-part workshop on Feb. 21 and 28 to teach about 30 participants the traditional Jewish ritual of tahara, meaning purification, performed on the dead before burial.
Rabbi Alan LaPayover — who is very much alive — volunteered to play the role of the rigor mortis body so participants could practice what the ritual would actually be like when attempting to dress him in the traditional shrouds.
LaPayover, Rabbis Sarra Lev and Linda Holtzman, who all teach at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and are founding members of the Chevra Kadisha, or burial society, led the seminars. They discussed the liturgy, the necessary garments and what it’s like to move a body to get people familiar with the custom.
Kol Tzedek hosted the seminars in its Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia. The synagogue worked in partnership with RRC and the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha, although the Chevra Kadisha is unaffiliated with RRC.
The ritual of tahara involves specific liturgy and prayer, a washing and cleansing of the body paralleling a mikvah, and clothing the body in specific shrouds made of white linen.
Holtzman described this process as a “soul escort,” in which the tahara is a way to ease into that process.
The whole practice usually takes about an hour.
Although among the highest mitzvah that can be achieved, the tahara isn’t that common.
The ritual dates back to the Middle Ages — the liturgy itself dates back to ancient times — but this incarnation of the practice began in the 1980s, when Holtzman founded the organization during the AIDS epidemic.
“A gay man asked me if I would make sure when he died that his body would be prepared in a traditional Jewish way,” she recalled, “by people who really respected his life and celebrated who he was when he was living.”
“I knew that the man who had asked me was probably the first of many — and that he and they deserved a group that did respect them,” she added.
She had a short training about how to do the tahara, but, two years later, when the man died, her memory of the ceremony had grown fuzzy.
She performed it to the best of her ability with a few other people, and though it turned out beautifully, she said, she decided to put together a formal group of people with more serious training for the future.
She added to a grant from RRC, requesting funding for full training.
Since the early 1990s, the group has been meeting monthly to practice, learn and talk about how to be a progressive chevra kadisha.
Holtzman estimated the group does a tahara about once a month.
She explained that this group is more flexible than a traditional chevra kadisha, which is bound by Jewish law.
“We are in control of what we do, and after we finish our tahara: Whatever people decide to do, they decide to do — we don’t try to control that,” she said. “We as a group both use Jewish law as our guide but use those values to make our decisions about how we’ll do it.”
The key points of the tahara are equality in death and not denying death, which is why personal items or specific requests are often revoked.
“In Jewish tradition, we don’t deny death,” she said. “It is different from life. So we dress [them] in shrouds, we do different things with the body than we would do in life.
“There’s equality in death, so everybody gets the exact treatment: the same shrouds, the same plain wooden box.”
For Holtzman, she has no doubt that performing the tahara is the most sacred thing in her life.
“The moment between life and death is such a major transition in our world, and I think it matters that we honor that moment,” she said. “We don’t know what happens once somebody dies, but we do know what happened while they were living. If we can honor the body with the understanding that it held the spirit of life for a person for so many years, then it deserves to be honored.”
As discussed during the workshop, the tahara needs to happen quickly and as close to the funeral as possible.
At least five or six people are needed because the ritual involves multiple processes that require several hands (plus lifting a body is easier with more people).
Some key aspects of the tahara include:
- The ritual begins outside the room in which the deceased is placed. Conversation is not permitted in front of the body unless it pertains to the tahara.
- The body is cleansed with water, similar to the concept of a mikvah, several times.
- The body, male or female, is dressed in a shirt, pants, a large sheet underneath the body, a hood for the head, a kittel or jacket, and belt, all made of white linen. Modesty is still maintained during the process.
- Due to equality in death, the body is cleaned and removed of excess things like nail polish.
- If the person loses blood after death or had bloodied clothes from death, they are buried with them, which is put inside a small cloth bag. Anything removed from the body that was physically there before death is buried with the person.
Ariana Katz, a student at RRC and the rabbinic intern at Kol Tzedek, organized the workshops.
She learned about the Chevra Kadisha when she started at RRC in 2013 and has been a member ever since.
“I joined after burying four grandparents and feeling really intimately connected with the Jewishness that was mourning them,” she said, “and loving the technology of Jewish burial and mourning and really thinking it works.”
Katz has become more invested over the years.
“To bury someone or go to a funeral is the mitzvah that can’t be paid back — it’s one of the highest mitzvot,” she said.
“I think the more we learn, the less frightening it becomes. As human beings, we’re supposed to fear death, and I know that my own mortality has felt less frightening knowing that there’s a dignified way in which we help usher our dead and help each other through that process.”
The Chevra Kadisha currently has about two dozen members, but Katz hopes the workshops will encourage more people to join.
Jennifer Wright, one of the participants, grew up in a fairly religious Jewish family and knew about tahara but never considered doing it.
“I’m in a profession that deals with chronic disease,” she said. “Acknowledging death is a big part of my work.
“So I think that it’s as much a personal journey for me as it is a matter of being Jewish and knowing that I would want someone to do it for me.”
Although interested in learning about the ritual, she was still unsure about implementing those skills in real life.
“When I was holding [LaPayover’s] head, I had this kind of visceral reaction of, ‘This person is limp,’ and it was really heavy!” she admitted. “To be standing there with not a lot of leverage is a lot, and I just had this moment where I was like, ‘Oh, this person’s really going to be dead.’ It’s not something I experienced before.”
But she said it’s important to get over that fear.
“It’s important that people know they can have a good death, that people can pass on and know they’re going to be taken care of,” Wright said.
It’s comforting for them to know that “as I lived as a Jew, I can die as a Jew,” she added. “For a lot of people, that wouldn’t be an option without this chevra.”
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