Ties That Bind

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

BY: Michelle Friedman

 

Continued from page 1

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.



We wash the

mais

in a cascade of water poured in a continuous stream from buckets held, for the first time, overhead. Now we must dry and dress her. We pat the body with cloth, change the drape, and shake out the package of coarse linen burial shrouds; the

tachrichim

are trimmed with lace.



The job of dressing the

mais

is difficult. We struggle with the body's dead weight as we pull on each garment and then wind and tie the closing ribbons. Ironic how these shrouds fasten with the same bows as the miniature kimonos used to dress newborns in hospital nurseries.



I remember how I was recruited for this task. A dozen years before, at the end of a synagogue service, one of the women who works alongside me today tapped me on the shoulder. "Michelle," she said. "We need people for the women's

chevra

. You're a doctor--you can do it." True, I had seen death during my professional training but still I harbored countless terrors of the grave. This was a different opportunity to confront and explore my fears. I agreed to try it out.



Chevra kadisha.

Literally translated, sacred fellowship. The ancient religious obligation of burial derives from spare biblical verses concerning the proper disposition of dead criminals. Some

chevras

can trace their histories back hundreds of years. Each involves its own rituals and customs. One of ours is the knotting style we use to fasten the drawstrings.



The six of us who comprise today's

chevra

group form pairs on either end of the set of ribbons. We wind, counting in Hebrew, our prescribed number of turns and form a half-bow. All the closures are done except one.



The plain pine coffin is ready. Sprinkled inside is a handful of soil from the land of Israel. We lower the body of our friend into the wooden box that will cradle her into the earth. We make final adjustments--straightening a crease, passing a mittened hand. The coffin cover is placed but not fixed. The

chevra

is still. Tears spill over as we recite a brief prayer asking for forgiveness for any indiscreet word, thought, or gesture any of us may have committed during our task.



Pallbearers now, we wheel the coffin into the crowded entry where a

shomer,

a watcher, sits, reciting Psalms. The body has been attended this way since the moment of death. Two women from the family of the deceased await us. We move the pine cover over so they can perform a last tender gesture, a final intimate rite for their sister. Holding hands, they wind and tie the ribbons of the open bootie. Ties of love, ties that bind the anguish of broken hearts so that healing can begin.



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