I waited a year after my mother, z”l, passed away, before I was able to think about doing for others what the Chevrah Kadisha had done for my mother.
I read the manual which they gave me. My friend, Helene, suggested that I watch the first time and read the prayers in English as she read them in Hebrew. Having worked in hospitals and nursing homes I was not a stranger to illness and death, but this was not medical. This was spiritual and kind and gentle. It was easier for me than I had expected, it was even a relief.
The meitah, deceased woman, was cold. We covered her body and her face modestly. We called her by her Hebrew name as we apologized for any unintended disrespect. We noted that we were going to do the “best we could.” We quietly prepared the implements, assigned duties and began checking her for bandages, medical devices, nail polish, areas that needed special cleansing. We prayed the prayers in the manual and were comforted by the excerpts from the Song of Songs describing her beauty. We were reminded not to pass items over her, as her neshamah hovered just above her. We tried to remember not to stand at her head as the Shechinah hovered there. Occasionally we spoke to her in comforting tones, as we had read that the sense of hearing was the last to go. We knew she was listening. We reminded her that we intended only respect and kindness.
We cleaned her, combed her hair and then we ritually purified her with the 3 buckets of continuous flowing water and more prayer. We dressed her as the kohanim, the priests in the Temple, were dressed, with pure white garments. We lifted her into the plain pine box, wrapped her in a white cloth, after sprinkling her with earth from Israel’s Mount of Olives. We faced her feet towards the door, beginning her journey to Gan Eden, the garden of Eden. Again we addressed her and asked for her forgiveness.
The other women had done this many times before and still were moved and impressed with the significance of the moment.
I felt quietness envelope me as I had been privileged to participate in a transition from one level of existence to the next. What an honor it was to be there with her.
I saw and felt what these women had done for my mother. I felt reassured that this had been done for my mother, and one day would be done for me. I was so grateful. I was comforted and felt my mother must have felt comforted, too. These women, this Chevrah, was the embodiment (no pun intended) of Hashem’s feminine aspects: compassion, kindness, nurturing. In a way it was like I was a voyeur, sneaking a glimpse into the next world. I came away reassured.
Joyce Friedman, Ph. D. is a hospital neuropsychologist working in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. She is a professor and the first Jewish chaplain (non-military) in the state of Oklahoma. She is a longtime member of the 110 year old Oklahoma City Emanuel Synagogue Chevrah Kadisha. She is the new mother of 5 Brahma chickens. She davens with Chabad. She has taken multiple courses at the Gamliel Institute.