Why I Joined Our Hevra Kaddisha

How one woman, in the middle of her own year of mourning, joined this "holy society" of those who prepare the dead for burial--and what it has meant to her.

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Continuing in the Footsteps of a Dedicated Mother

I remembered that my mother had been an active member of the hevra kaddisha at the time when I was a teenager. I had always admired her capability to do this sort of work. My father had been a prominent pediatrician and consequently my mother had lived a life of the upper class in a lovely home with servants. Yet she answered every call with unpretentious dedication, happy to do the work of a hevra-member for the sake of the mitzvah. I was now at that same age at which I remembered my mother's activities.

In order to live a full life, I felt that it was important to expose myself to this mitzvah. It is part of the cycle of human life, just as old age, and sickness, and failing health in old age are part of life. The end of life is also part of life; if you try to shut it out you have lived less fully. If, however, you have the inner strength to participate in it, you will encounter new experiences by which you will grow and be enriched.

The soul should not be denied sorrow, for it gives us understanding and compassion. It adds a dimension to our understanding of the human condition, and gives us scope and perspective. We learn to appreciate our blessings. The hevra experience provides us with contrast. Once you are exposed to it you can no longer take for granted life, good health and the absence of physical suffering. Thus we are taught to see things in better proportion. So I decided to become an active member.

Each Taharah is Suffering, but the First was a Lesson

My first taharah ["purification," or preparing the body] was a young girl. I remember clearly thinking that this was unfair. My first experience with this mitzvah should have been an aged person who had lived out a full life, where death would come at a more easily acceptable time. But at the same time I realized that this was not realistic thinking, because in this game one cannot choose. Again I felt that if I would decline on the grounds that it was to be my first encounter with a corpse and that I was not ready to meet with a young girl, snatched away in her prime and deformed by years of illness, I would rob myself of an experience that would touch me and maybe in some way add some dimension to my life now or later.

So I went. Maybe in the back of my mind I had a feeling that it would equip me better to face possible future shocks from which no human being is ever completely spared. Yet I remember that on the way home from this taharah somewhat depressed (though at the same time with the satisfaction that I had had my start in the hevra), I had grave doubts as to whether one can ever become hardened or reconciled to such suffering.

Since this first tragic taharah, I have been called whenever the hevra was needed. Each time, before the actual taharah, the body is lifted off the bed onto a wooden board ("Abheben"). The taharah--nowadays usually performed in a specially equipped room in the funeral parlor--consists essentially of carefully cleaning the body, including trimming nails and combing hair. This is followed by a ceremonial purification with nine measures of water. Finally the body is carefully dried, clothed in white linen garments and placed in the casket. A bag with earth from the land of Israel is placed under the head. The details are governed by halakha [Jewish law] and by customs which may vary slightly in different communities.

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Judy Freudenstein is the Co-Chair of the Women's Chevra at the Riverdale Jewish Center.