Ties That Bind

The Jewish ritual of preparing the body for burial is a tradition of sacred fellowship

Reprinted from Lilith magazine. Used with the author's permission.

It is early morning when the call I dread but expect comes. Hastily, I dress in somber, practical clothing and rearrange my work schedule for the day. I know the routine--as a member of my synagogue's

chevra kadisha

, burial society, I have been through this sad drill before. But this time a cloud of disbelief hangs over me. I am going to prepare a friend for her grave.



As I hurry up Amsterdam Avenue to the funeral home, the roar of the street disorients me. I feel disconnected from such vitality, such an embrace from the day. The sight of the other five

chevra

members who gather at the side of the door of the chapel with their stricken faces comforts me. We all knew the woman whose cancer-ravaged body lies below. We lived in the same neighborhood, watched our children tumble together in the playground, shared countless conversations.



Bypassing the old-world lobby with its regal moldings and marble floor, we descend a narrow staircase into a morbid basement emporium where the grim purpose of this place is all too clear. I try not to look, but my eye is invariably drawn to the tiny coffins; the delicately adorned, ivory-toned ones that could be jewelry boxes but I know await the death of a baby.



Just a few steps take us onto cement flooring and we enter a small room whose function seems janitorial. It is dominated by a white slab of a porcelain table. The

mais,

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the body, is wheeled in on a gurney and positioned next to the table. Carefully and tenderly, the six of us lift the body of our friend onto the cold, hard surface and begin our work.



The procedure is a supremely respectful one. The

mais

is kept covered at all times. We make a drape of sheets before cutting off the hospital gown. Next, we remove all stigmata of final illness, indignity or unnatural intervention. The body will be returned to nature, delivered to the ground, without bandages or catheters. We, in the women's

chevra,

frequently perform half-manicures, taking off chipped nail polish and swabbing grime from beneath stiffened fingernails. We do not pass materials over the

mais

--all necessary items are handed around the side of the table. This body once housed a living spirit and our ritual honors that sanctity.



Conversation is minimal. Each of us hovers on the brink of tears. We rely on the ceremonial practicality of our task and the group's complicity to maintain composure. We confine speech to the practical; requesting materials, shifting limb positions, agreeing that we can go on to the next step.



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Michelle Friedman
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