The chevra kadisha (“Holy Community”) is a geographically-organized group responsible for all Jewish matters pertaining to death, including arranging people to sit with and guard the body (shemira), and preparation of the body for burial (tahara). The 7th of Adar, which falls this year on February 22, is the date the Rabbis assigned to Moshe’s death (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 38a). Because God prepared Moshe’s body for burial personally, the chevra honors this date as a day of reflection on the work they do. Different chevras and members have various approaches to balancing modesty with a desire to spread knowledge regarding death rituals to make them less obscure. This post, by Emily Fishman, is part 5 of a week-long series by contemporary Jews involved in local chevras. Click here for Parts 1, by Gidon Von Emden, 2, by Nina Rubin, 3, by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, and 4, by Elissa Felder and Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein.
I hope it’s okay that I call you that. I refer to all old women as Bubbie in my head, even the ones who aren’t grandmothers, even the ones who aren’t Ashkenazi Jews. I hope you know that I mean it as a term of deep respect as well as endearment. I’m new at this whole thing. This is only the second tahara team I’ve ever been on.
Several weeks from now, one of the women who is on this team with me will point out that no one else refers to the meyta, the deceased, as “Bubbie”. She attributes this to the fact that many of them are older than me and see their mothers or themselves in the meyta. I hope I still call people Bubbie even when I’m older.
Thirty years ago, a woman was about to give birth nine miles from here at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She was 33 and had already raised her stepdaughter to teenagehood, but was pregnant for the first time. The nurses and doctors and other staff in the room didn’t know much about her life story, just the relevant stats: she was 38 weeks pregnant, her water had broken about four hours earlier, and she couldn’t go into full labor because of a prior surgery on her uterus. They didn’t know about her career, her older daughter, her favorite music to listen to, her favorite dishes to cook. But their relationship with her wasn’t perfunctory, either. They were in her life for a particular task: delivering me safely into the world. They were extremely careful and attentive and knowledgeable and reassuring and effective. Maybe they checked the charts on their next shift and found that she and her husband had named me Emily. Maybe they didn’t, because there was the next person who needed their help.
I bring this up because I don’t know much about you, Bubbie. I know your name and your age and that you have four children. The lack of more intimate or personal details about your life doesn’t mean our interaction here is unfeeling. I am preparing your body for its last journey, just as the staff at that hospital welcomed me from my first journey.
My first task today is to clean the bright pink polish off your toenails. Someone painted your toe nails recently, probably within the last week. They did a very neat job. Maybe it was your grandchild. Or maybe it was someone who was paid to help care for you. Either way, someone painted your toes, which was not at all necessary to your well-being but hopefully you liked the color, and enjoyed the feeling of someone handling your feet with such care. I wonder if you really had bare feet at all in the past week, or if it was a secret that you shared, hidden under those ridiculously itchy hospital socks.
It’s time for the rechitza, the first washing of your body. Was your first bath also at the Brigham like mine? Was it even at a hospital? Was it in this country? Anyway, during the rechitza I see that there’s a spot on the back of your elbow that looks like it was almost a pressure sore. A few days ago, this would have been cause for alarm. Now, it doesn’t matter. You’ve finished the work of needing to keep your weight shifting and rotating. That bright spot is just another part of your skin.
After the rechitza is done, it’s time for the tahara, the pouring of 24 quarts of water in one continuous stream over the body, touching every surface. We prepared the three buckets ahead of time. I’m not pouring one of them today so I take a step back, one hand on the sheet that protects your modesty. In the other hand, I have a hand towel. We’ll go through about eight of them drying you off before we put on the multi-part burial garments.
The first part of your body that I dry is your right breast. Were you self-conscious of them as a teenager? Did your lovers help or hinder you overcoming that feeling? You have four children– did you nurse any of them? All of them? I know formula was popular when your children were been born. I think about all of those moments: the ones where you stared into their eyes and dreamed of their future in peace and the ones where you thought you would absolutely hit the limits of your ability to cope if this child did not fall asleep in the next five minutes.
Every inch of your body is marvelous. Truly. כֻּלָּךְ יָפָה רַעְיָתִי וּמוּם אֵין בָּךְ Every part of you is fair, my beloved; you are without blemish (4:7). I love that we recite from Song of Songs during this ritual.
After a few minutes of somewhat awkward maneuvering, you’re dressed in your last clothes. These pants with no openings, these awkward and beautiful knots which tie them at the waist, which would surely not suffice to actually hold them up– but there’s no need for function. This bonnet which covers your silver hair. The shirt and the overshirt. To tell the truth, it’s kind of hot in here today, and if you were alive, I would dress you only in one layer. But you’re not, and this is how we do it.
We place you in the casket, tie a few more knots, and swaddle you up. I know almost nothing about your life in the more than ninety years since you were first swaddled, with awe and love, the same way we are doing it now. But you did it, Bubbie. You’ve arrived at the last event. We close the top of the casket, which is not to be reopened. We were the last ones to witness your physical life. Tomorrow, the people who really know you will gather to mourn and celebrate and cry and laugh and bury. I’m going home now to drink some tea and get ready to teach my preschoolers in the morning. You remember what Sunday nights are like.
The writer is part of the Boston Community Chevra Kadisha. For more information, please contact info@HevraKadisha.org.