Most people would not want to spend the last part of their weekend in a dark funeral home or their cold mornings in the basement of a funeral parlor, but for the hundreds of chevra kadisha volunteers worldwide, it is not about what you want to do but what has to be done.
Sunday evenings are when Mary Ireland changes out of her heels and into comfortable flats. This is just one small part of her routine preparations for her role in the community chevra kadisha (literally, “The Holy Society”), a group that performs the ritual purifications on the deceased. Ireland was recruited over 20 years ago by her local group in Cleveland, Ohio and has been actively involved ever since. By now, Ireland’s children know not to plan visits for that time of the week, since they assume that their mother will most likely be out fulfilling this holy, yet often mysterious and misunderstood mission.
Marcello Weiss, also of Cleveland, Ohio, has been active on the men’s chevra kadisha crew for about 10 years. He was recruited in an attempt to draw younger men into the pool of volunteers. He admits he wouldn’t necessarily have reached out, as he didn’t feel confident that he would have the emotional fortitude required to conduct a tahara. In fact, as if being tested, Weiss recalls that his very first tahara was on a young man who was in a motorcycle accident; Weiss admits that it took him a couple of weeks to recover from the traumatic experience. However, he did not give up and was reassured that it would not always be so difficult and that moving forward, “it would only be uphill.”
Ireland relates one particularly difficult tahara that she and her crew performed on a young girl. The fact that she still had braces emphasized her youth and innocence, and the heartbreaking tragedy of her death. Weiss, with similar anguish, discloses the painful memory of performing a tahara on a baby. It is these types of situations that make it clear this is not a job to which just anyone can commit. Both have been approached by community members who say things like, “I don’t know how you do it.” Ireland understands why some people would stay away from such a seemingly morbid task and admits that she sometimes doesn’t know how she does it either. She concludes matter-of-factly, that for whatever reason, she has been given the ability to successfully perform this specific mitzvah, along with her dedicated crew, and she is going to continue to do it for as long as she feels able.
While being part of a chevra kadisha is considered a chesed shel emet - kindness of truth (i.e. with pure intent), since one cannot be thanked by the recipient of the chesed, Ireland has been thanked by many community members for her kindness to their loved ones. Most often, they express how happy they are that a friend or trusted community member, and not a stranger, has performed their family member’s tahara. Weiss has had similar experiences and has even been specifically requested to serve on a crew for people who know him personally.
Neither Ireland nor Weiss divulge details of the tahara ritual nor particulars of how it is performed, but they both reveal that the greatest concern is for the sensitive care, modesty and dignity of the deceased throughout the process. There is even a point during the tahara when crew members verbally, or internally, apologize to the deceased in case there was any inadvertent lapse of dignity. In that vein, many chevrei kadisha crews across the world institute a fast day for its participants, to atone for any mistakes made during the purification process. It is widely accepted that the volunteers fast on the 7th of Adar, the birthday and day of death of Moshe Rabbeinu (which happens to be Ireland’s birthday as well). The establishment of this fast day further accentuates the severity of the duties of the chevra kadisha, and the gravity of the command to treat the departed with utmost respect.
An exploration of why the seventh day of Adar was specifically chosen further reveals the extraordinary devotion of the organization’s volunteers. Rabbi Raphael Davidovich, rabbi of Heights Jewish Center in University Heights, Ohio, explains that the source for the date is a medrash in Shemos Rabbah (20:16). The medrash states the Moshe took it upon himself to bring the bones of Yosef to Eretz Yisrael, yet he had no obligation to do so. As a reward for this kindness, God stated that He Himself would take responsibility to bury Moshe. Rabbi Davidovich concludes, “Since God personally involved Himself in the mitzvah of burying the dead, [it illustrates] that all those who involve themselves in this mitzvah are thus emulating HaKadosh Baruch Hu [God Himself].”
Besides the inevitable painful experiences, being personally involved in a chevra kadisha has been a comfort to both Ireland and Weiss when a loved one has passed away. The period of mourning is such a confusing, overwhelming time, yet the knowledge that a prescribed and exact ritual is going to be performed often offers a small comfort. Knowing exactly what to expect, and what is going to happen has helped them cope during some very difficult times.
Lastly, Weiss mentions one more cathartic and meaningful component of being involved in a chevra kadisha – the perspective he gains. For him, the whole process is a constant reminder that death is a great equalizer. During a person’s life, he can be rich, he can be poor; he can have had much health and success or suffer through illness and strife, and yet it all ends the same way. Every Jew who passes away is subject to, and honored with, the tahara process, no matter what sort of life he or she led. Weiss says this reality has helped him remember what is truly important.
The ability of those like Ireland and Weiss to change shoes and do what needs to be done at the darkest of times has allowed Jewish communities world-wide to uphold the ancient and crucial end-of-life rites and to continue to be a Godly and dignified nation.
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