The Value of Anonymity & Talking about Hevra Work

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 today, 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 double-feature includes two perspectives on talking about chevra work. An anonymous author discusses the tradition around remaining anonymous, while Allen Spivak write about why he does talk about his chevra kadisha involvement. It is Part 6 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, 4, by Elissa Felder and Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, and 5, by Emily Fishman. 

The Value of Anonymity

As the Chair of our congregational Chevra Kadisha, I am often asked by the mourner who they can thank for doing the Taharah for their loved one. In response, I explain that it is a time honored tradition that we do not reveal the identities of the Taharah team for any specific Taharah. For most of us on the Chevra Kadisha, it is the anonymity that is a strong attraction to being part of this group. The idea that we would be thanked for doing this work is not only strange but creates a certain anxiety.
What lies behind this reluctance to accept credit and the thanks of the mourner for having engaged in this holy work on behalf of someone they loved? The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that our work is not on behalf of the mourner. Our work is on behalf of the departed. We deeply believe that each person is created in the image of G-d, both the body and the soul. Thus, we are committed to honoring the mortal body that allowed the undying soul to be known to those who loved and and were loved by the deceased. By tending to the body of the deceased, we are able to honor the life that was lived and prepare this person for a return to its origins in the earth. Since our work is on behalf of the deceased, it is work that cannot be acknowledged by the only one whose thanks would be appropriate. For this reason, it is called a Chesed Shel Emet – an act of true loving kindness.
But for many of us, our anonymity is also its own reward. We are engaged in work that is deeply spiritual. When we carefully undress and bathe the body, cleaning off the debris of the last moments of life, we do so with the love and care that we hope will someday be shown to us. We are able to show our love for this person whom we may not have known in life, but we now care for in the most intimate of ways. We are strict about the purification ritual so that we have no concern that this last rite is done correctly and mindfully. In dressing the deceased, we take care that the clothing is adjusted just so, the knots have the right number of twists and we establish through our Hebrew readings the linkage between these articles of clothing and their Biblical antecedents. Finally, we place the body of the deceased as gently as possible into the casket and close the lid, the last people to see the deceased in this life.
The rituals of Taharah never fail to affect the participants and create a holy bond in a place where holiness may seem distant. The porcelain, formica and stainless steel where we perform the Taharah have none of the warmth that we associated with a holy place. And so, we cling to this sense of the ineffable that informs us that we too will someday be lying on a preparation table with a team unknown to us who will lovingly prepare us for our journey into whatever lies on the other side of death. We hope that we too will be cared for as we have cared for the deceased in front of us. For us to be made known for this work is to diminish the bond that we have created between the Taharah team and this image of G-d that was before us. 
Why I Talk about My Hevra Involvement
by Allen Spivak, a member of the Boston Community Hevra Kadisha.
I’m never shy about telling folks I’m part of a hevra kadisha. When I tell them what that is and what we do, I’m never sure what facial expression to expect-confusion/shock/disgust/admiration/bewilderment.
I get it. This is not your typical (read “normal”) activity that people choose for their post-retirement years (neither is being a sculptor but I do that too). And did I mention that my wife (Sherry Grossman) is also a member of the hevra kadisha! But ‘being a Jew’ means different things to each of us, and for me, connecting to, participating in and supporting the community (in large and small ways) is a central responsibility.
Also, I do not shy away from what others may describe as the ‘unsavory things’ in life. I spent 12 years working in construction, and then after I got a social work degree, worked with people who were homeless or had HIV/AIDS or had addiction issues or abused intimate partners or suffered trauma (or a combination of all of them). So participating in a hevra kadisha was just another way to offer service to a community in need.
In addition to the ‘serving the community’ aspect of the hevra kadisha, I found that participating in the purification ritual of tahara helped me to view death differently. You see my father died when I was 11 years old and as a result my experience of death left me ‘stuck’ as that young boy overwhelmed by the dying experience. As a result, I avoided confronting death at all costs by avoiding shiva calls, making excuses for not attending a funeral, and never writing condolence notes. This has all changed for me as I participated in the hevra kadisha, I’ve really grown up and evolved. Now my experience around death feels more and more appropriate to my age. I’ve finally learned to encounter death through adult eyes.
As a final thought, I want to say that my experience and sensibilities when entering the tahara room (with my team members) feels similar to entering my sculpture studio. In both cases, the space is sacred, a sanctuary for doing holy work. As in the tahara room, each tool in my studio has its place. The holy texts we recite during tahara that adorn the walls are similar to the quotes and photographs that adorn my studio walls and that inspire me. But more than the conditions of the physical space, doing ‘the work’ in each of these spaces resonates with virtually the same intensity, sensitivity, sense of timelessness and spiritual uplift for me. It was not something I anticipated or expected, but I am so grateful to have physical ‘spaces’ in my life that offer me such rich opportunities. Baruch HaShem– thank God.

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