The sacred, and somehow life-affirming, work of preparing the dead for burial.
New Yorkers who love New York pride themselves on inside information – the things they know about this city that few others have any idea about.
I think about that when I enter the code on the keypad to open the garage door at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel on the Upper West Side. I happen to know this place well. I’ve attended too many funerals of friends and family members, planned several too. The place I know best is the basement, several linoleum-tiled rooms adjacent to a carpeted showroom displaying Plaza’s full line of caskets, from the plainest pine box to the most ornate coffin of polished precious wood. Just down the hallway is the large refrigerated morgue, which I have been inside.
I know several of the staff, but I come to Plaza anonymously. Several times over the course of a year, I join some of the other women who serve on our synagogue’s Chevra Kadisha. The literal translation is Sacred Society; we do the holy work of tahara, preparing a just-deceased person for burial, a process of purification and washing. We gather in a carpeted room upstairs, where the family might assemble the following day just before the funeral and we share whatever details we have gleaned of the person’s life, including her Hebrew name, which is how we’ll refer to her.
We then go downstairs and begin the ritualized work, first preparing the coffin (selected by the family). Dressed in reinforced paper gowns that look like operating room suits, booties and gloves, we wash the body in prescribed ways — for instance, we remove nail polish and bandages, slowly pour streams of water over her, comb her hair. Afterwards, we carefully dry and dress the person in linen shrouds, including a shirt, tunic, pants, head coverings and belt, all tied with special knots.
Mostly, we move in silence, speaking only when it relates to the work we are doing and to read prayers. Sometimes we sing niggunim, wordless melodies. Time passes quickly, unnoticed. After we place the person in the coffin, sprinkle earth from the Land of Israel over her and place the cover on top, we recite a prayer asking her forgiveness for our unintentional shortcomings. We then wheel the coffin into the morgue.
Sometimes there are challenges — open wounds, limbs that are already very rigid, unexpected weight. At times, we know the person we are caring for, or sometimes she is the mother of someone we know. Always, we understand that ours are the last hands to touch this person. We recognize that we are doing a mitzvah that cannot be repaid.
I have also been to the basement of Plaza to do shmira, to sit with the body from after death until the funeral. The tradition is to sit quietly and read psalms; sometimes, when I know the person, I add some poetry in English.
There are more than a dozen Jewish funeral homes throughout the New York area, but Plaza is the only one that is owned and operated by the Jewish community, and run as a service rather than a for-profit business. I have been to many of these, but most often, I’ve been to funerals at Plaza, and to its brightly lit basement. Our Chevra has a locker there, where we store our supplies. One friend on the team points out the strangeness of using everyday tools, like scissors, cotton and plastic buckets, to do this work.
The members of the Chevra Kadisha inspire me with their kindness, dedication, holiness and strength. They help me to see the beauty and youth in the person we face. I am always moved to be among them. The families of the deceased never learn our identities. Sometimes it’s tempting to tell someone how peaceful a parent looked, but we do not reveal ourselves.
When we complete our work and take off our gowns, we meet again in the upstairs meeting room, drink water and share our thoughts. Sometimes, one member of the team offers spontaneous and magnificent blessings. We hug and part.
When I leave Plaza after doing an evening tahara, I love the feeling of the night air on my face. The city streets are more vivid, the flashing lights brighter. I usually take a long walk alone. I rarely talk to others about my time at Plaza, but I would say that even with the overwhelming feelings of loss, the experience is somehow life affirming. I feel ever-more close to those I love, in this world and the next. And in feeling connected to strangers I’ve had the most intimate contact with and to their families — and with generations of others who have done this holy work — this city feels smaller and more filled with compassion. ◆
Sarah B. Abraham is the pseudonym of a New York writer. She prefers to withhold her identity as those members of the Chevra Kadisha who perform tahara work anonymously.