It is called chesed shel emet—the truest, most selfless act of benevolence one Jew can do for another. Taking care of the physical and spiritual needs of the dead is a chesed without the slightest hope of reciprocity. But two women who regularly dedicate their mornings to performing taharot—the ritual preparation of the met (dead body) for burial—think otherwise. They say that conducting this sacred mitzvah consistently brings them priceless spiritual rewards, far more than they ever expected.
Batya Rich, from St. Louis and a ba’alat teshuvah for six years, heard about the Jewish ritual from a friend and member of Ahavas Chesed, St. Louis’s chevrah kadishah—the community organization that prepares the Jewish dead for burial according to halachah. The woman asked Rich if she would be interested in joining the Chevrah Kadishah. She was.
“While training to be an occupational therapist at the University of Missouri, I had worked with a cadaver,” Rich says. “[So] I wasn’t intimidated by being with a body. We all have our talents and strengths; this was something I knew I could do. I heard it was a great mitzvah.” Rich was also motivated by Ahavas Chesed’s great need for female volunteers. “We have a small frum community [close to four hundred families] and [the two most patronized] Jewish cemeteries in the area require that the body undergo a taharah.” Since Rich began volunteering over four years ago, she has been performing up to two taharot every week.
In 1995, Bobbi Gibli, also from St. Louis, saw a notice posted by the chevrah kadishah calling for volunteers. A recent ba’alat teshuvah, she was unaware of the taharah process. After some in-depth inquiry, she immediately decided to offer her services. “I’m a doer,” she says. “I realized as an observant Jew, I needed to involve myself in as many mitzvot as possible.” A professional researcher at the St. Louis Laboratories of Pfizer Global Research and Development, she thought it was a mitzvah she would be able to fulfill. “I find it extremely moving,” Gibli says. “The kavod we [are required to] give the met puts a whole different perspective on life for me. I know that I’m dealing with something so extraordinary every time I do a taharah.” Gibli has been doing the extraordinary for a decade, performing up to four taharot a week.
When they are needed, Gibli and Rich will receive a phone call from the taharah coordinator (often in the late evening) informing them that a Jewish female has died (men perform the ritual for men; women for women). They are told that the procedure will take place at either seven or nine o’clock the following morning and are asked if they can make it. Three to four volunteers meet at the funeral home and, with the utmost care, gentleness and deference, go through the hallowed, age-old process of preparing a Jewish neshamah for the Next World.
Surgical gowns are donned, hands are washed and covered with rubber gloves, and a candle is lit. The women remove all articles of clothing from the met, as well as jewelry, bandages and sometimes detachable medical tubes; a sheet covers the body, preserving its dignity throughout. If there is nail polish on the met, it is removed at this point.
“To avoid [there being a] chatzitzah [an obstacle that would interfere with proper ritual cleansing], we have to remove everything from the body that we possibly can,” says Gibli. Any blood on the sheet or clothing is placed in the aron (casket) to be buried with the met. The eyes are closed, the limbs straightened and the head raised on a special rest. The women work in silence, speaking only to recite designated prayers or necessary information pertaining to the taharah. Nothing is ever passed directly over the met.
The volunteers wash the body, starting at the head and working downward, always starting with the right side, then proceeding to the left. They turn the body on its side and wash the back. “Sometimes the body is not in such good condition,” says Gibli. “It’s hard to see that.” After rinsing off two-by-four wooden boards, they raise the body off the porcelain table, place the boards on the table and then place the body on the boards, enabling the mikvah waters to reach every part of the body, even the back. Three buckets of water are poured simultaneously, creating a continual flow over the entire body, as the women pronounce: “Tahorah hee. Tahorah hee. Tahorah hee [She’s pure].” They dry the body, place a fresh sheet over it, and dress the met in tachrichim, white burial shrouds representing the clothing of the High Priest, expressing the majesty and kedushah of every Jew. They also place a mitznefet (face covering) on the met and recite “He has dressed me in the clothing of salvation, in a robe of righteousness … like a bridegroom who exalts [himself] with splendor, like a bride who adorns herself with jewels …” (Yeshayahu 61:10).
The body is placed into the aron, the head resting on a pillow. The women sprinkle earth from Eretz Yisrael over each eye, the heart and the groin area, reciting: “vechapair admato amo—and the land shall atone for His people (Devarim 32:43). Then they place sherblach (pieces of broken pottery) on each eye and on the mouth. Addressing the met, each volunteer asks for forgiveness for anything she may have done improperly during the procedure. The aron is closed, and a prayer is recited before and while it is carried out of the room. “May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord shine his face upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift His countenance unto you and give you peace…” (Bamidbar 6:24–26). Volunteers remove their gowns and gloves, wash their hands and leave facing the room so as not to turn their backs on the met. Upon leaving the funeral home, each volunteer performs ritual hand washing.
“It takes me almost forty-five minutes to get to work from the funeral home,” says Gibli. “It gives me time to think. I go over in my mind what I did and if I did as good a job as I could have.”
The Power of Partnering with God
The taharah experience takes under one hour and leaves a marked impact on each participant. “The whole day after my first taharah, I thought a lot about the met,” says Rich. “I was with a body that had just been alive the day before! I still leave with gratitude that I am alive and for everything in my life; [I am able to better] recognize the little things that I value and appreciate every day.”
Gibli says it has given her a different outlook on what the essence of life is. “I’ve learned what’s important and what doesn’t make a difference. So, someone or something annoyed me; why should I expend my energy getting angry or upset? The fact is that I’m standing here breathing, and two seconds later I might not be; it puts a different spin on how I look at everything.”
With a heightened respect for the value of life, Rich and Gibli have changed physical habits as well. “I’ve seen the effects when one neglects one’s health,” Rich says. “I see more and more people with tubes and colostomies. I’ve changed the way I eat and what I eat, and exercise regularly.” It’s not only health considerations that motivate these changes. “I stopped wearing nail polish since I started doing taharot,” says Gibli. “Knowing the time and effort involved [for the chevrah kadishah], I don’t want someone to have to deal with it [when my time comes].”
Over the years these tireless volunteers have served Jews across the age and religious spectrum. They report that they’ve done a taharah on a woman who was over one hundred years old, and one on an infant of a few months. “It’s much more difficult when it’s someone young,” says Gibli. “I remember one woman in her early thirties; if I close my eyes, I [can] still see her face. I try not to look at the face as a kavod to the person, but I noticed it while washing her head. She looked so vibrant. It was very hard.”
Since the Jewish cemeteries in the area mandate taharot, many families of the metim do not necessarily have the ritual done because of their commitment to follow proper halachic procedure. “We all wish that people would come to Torah,” says Rich. “Yet if they weren’t observant in their lives, we hope at least we can escort them in a holy, pure, Torah fashion.”
There are instances when the met is someone the volunteers actually knew. “It is a mitzvah to escort the person, and I wanted very much to do this for her,” says Rich about a particular friend in the community who passed away. “Throughout the procedure I was very careful to treat the met with the greatest respect, care and love. It was extremely sad to place her body in the casket. We were the last people to see her [in this world]. There is so much wisdom in the Torah. The way we show respect for the body and prepare it for death is part of its beautiful laws.”
When the met is large or heavy, lifting and dressing the body poses a challenge, and the volunteers sometimes are compelled to use a mechanical lift. “It’s difficult for me when we have to do that,” says Gibli. “It makes it so impersonal.”
Despite the emotional and physical exertion, the volunteers find this chesed work spiritually elevating. “After I do a taharah, I always have a good day,” says Rich. “Everything goes smoothly; everything that I need to happen happens; I feel protected. I feel uplifted and fulfilled that I had an opportunity to do something really important and meaningful. My relationship with Hashem has deepened. It’s really very powerful.”
Gibli acknowledges the humbling effect participating in a taharah has. “I’ve developed a more profound respect for people, for human life, and what we are here for in this world,” she says. “[The purpose of life is] To be as good a person as I can and to relate to others in the manner I think they would want me to. I try not to judge others, not to measure them against my standards. And [I’ve learned that] death doesn’t have to be frightening, knowing that when the taharah is done, the neshamah goes back to Hashem.”
Apparently their devotion to this chesed shel emet has also affected their families. Inspired by their wives’ example, both women’s husbands have involved themselves in taharah work.
As these two women regularly rise early to help Jewish neshamot return to their Creator, they share a holy space in time that enriches their own journeys through this world. “There’s an atmosphere of calm in the room,” says Gibli. “No one is in a hurry, no thoughts of what we need to do after we leave; we’re just concentrating on what we are doing, on the soul and on being connected to Hashem. It’s hard for me to get back in my car afterward. I turn the key, and the noise of the engine breaks the spell. I [manage to] get involved in my daily life, yet it’s always in the background; it’s always there.”
This article originally appeared in Jewish Action Spring 2007.