The following is an excerpt from an in-progress piece on Jewish funeral rituals.
The dinner conversation is focused on how to dress the dead.
“White, as in dressed for Shabbat – “
“Or white as in the garments of the high priest.”
“It’s also white, the color of mourning.”
The voices overlap in the fifth floor common room of the Ansche Chesed synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, at the celebration of Zayin Adar, the seventh (zayin) day of the Jewish month Adar. This is the once-a-year occasion when the different communities celebrate and thank their chevra kadisha. Literally translating to “holy society,” the chevra kadisha are concerned with all aspects of death in the Jewish community – hospice visits, mourning customs, funeral decorum, grief counseling. They handle all the public, visible aspects, but also the discreet, behind the doors, below the ground aspects.
The chevra kadisha are the people who prepare for traditional Jewish burial by hand-cleaning the bodies, a ritual called tahara. Ansche Chesed is one of the few non-Orthodox synagogues in the country that performs the rite.
The holiday (which in 2012 fell on the last day of February) is officially the birthday of Moses, who according to Judaism lived to be 120 and died on the same date. Tradition has it that God performed the first tahara on Moses, personally cleaning his body before bearing him to heaven. David Fishman, one of the heads of Ansche Chesed’s chevra kadisha, is leading the discussion tonight. As he says it, “God went out of His or Her way to bury Moses, and if God does it for people how can we not?”
The work of the chevra, while not anonymous, is deliberately thankless. To tend to the dead is chesed shel emet, loosely translated as “the uneven kindness,” the last act of charity you can do for another person. The dead cannot repay this kindness, and since the members of the chevra stay on rotation, the family members never learn who performed tahara for their deceased. It’s the “corporate chevra kadisha,” as David refers to it, that carries out the ritual.
The only time the chevra kadisha receive special recognition is at the annual Zayin Adar dinner – many use it as a recruiting tool. Bookcases line the walls, some with arcane glass doors, all crowded with prayer books inching their way off the shelves. Everyone has gathered around the table with the remains of dinner, and photocopies of Hebrew passages from the Old Testament. The room is evenly split between people who are already members, and those who are chevra-curious.
After dinner and evening prayer, David leads the group exegesis of passages on burial. David’s voice and diction are densely academic, and measured phrases like “Even if you don’t know the ensuing Midrashic interpretation, you can intimate…” pepper his speech. After he wraps up, he invites the newcomers to ask any clarifying questions they want about the work of the chevra kadisha. “We’re in need of fresh blood,” he says. “No pun intended.”
Ansche Chesed began 21 years ago as an “egalitarian community,” which David says describes their organization and mindset more than it does a religious persuasion (though most of the early members, Fishman included, came from conservative upbringings). Shortly after forming, one member, a Talmudic scholar, contracted terminal cancer. “We were at an age where very few of us had dealt with death, most of our parents were still alive. People our age had not died – this was basically the first death in our community.”
The community agreed to take on the responsibility of tending to the dead, and David says that as a whole it went through a process of maturation. He equates the formation of the chevra kadisha with Ansche Chesed’s move to adulthood. But in the subsequent years, though the chevra has grown, it’s only grown older. The chevra leadership is looking to pass the reins soon.
The newcomers range from early twenties to early seventies, and they’ve been waiting to fire off questions. Is anyone ineligible for tahara? (Only members of the immediate community or their family members.) What time of day do they most often schedule it? (Late at night or early in the morning, whenever people are available.) How exactly do you train or prepare for it? Everyone at the table has an answer for this last question, and most of them translate to “you can’t.”
The chevra kadisha hosts training a couple times a year, but they have no body for demonstration. The procedures are simple. The difficult aspect, being in the presence of a corpse, holding it respectfully and gently in your hands – the only way to learn that is by doing. One woman says they once considered getting a “Resusci-Annie,” the same dummy used in life-saving exercises, but they cost an absurd amount. Besides, says David, the technical details are minor, and what people most need to prepare for is “the fundamental aspect of being with a person no longer spiritually active. A ‘Resusci-Annie’ can’t do that.”