October 22, 2019

Picking up the dead

I work in the community Chevrah Kadisha of Vancouver BC, and besides sitting Shmirah, performing Taharah, and filling in for burial and unveiling Minyan, one of my responsibilities involves picking up the deceased from their place of death. This can involve care homes, hospitals, the Coroner, hospice/palliative care facilities and, of course, the deceased’s home. The role is far from predictable and often very difficult.

Besides our van — an aging GMC Sierra — my primary tool is a stretcher better known as a mortuary cot. Its primary design feature is to roll in and out of the van with legs and wheels either deploying or retracting –  depending on whether you’re removing or returning it to the van. Unlike ambulance stretchers, these cots are designed to “just” work and nothing more. As such, our old cot sometimes collapses at one end with someone on it or the legs don’t fully deploy so it sits lower than normal. Fed up with our old cot I donated a new one to the Chevrah but the old has its fans and I’ve not yet been able to substitute the new for the old. 

Our arrival with the cot is often a very emotional and difficult time for the grieving family, let alone facility staff and other care home residents who may be unaware of someone’s passing. It certainly brings the reality of loss home to all who see us; families who have been with their deceased loved ones must now face the fact that they will not see them again and this can be a very painful time. It often becomes a protracted affair as there is paperwork to fill out, trying not to be in the way with the cart as hospital staff perform their duties, and family members sometimes just won’t let go. 

In nursing homes we often have to dodge groups of people who will naturally become upset or agitated knowing one of their friends may have died. I’m sure it also reminds them of their own situation, and their own mortality. One of us will often act as a lookout while we take circuitous routes in and out to avoid being seen. Other times this is impossible and rolling down a long hallway filled with residents is like running a gauntlet full of questions.

Once things are clear and we have the go ahead to remove the deceased, one finds a mortuary cot is a large, clumsy object in a hospital or care home room full of furniture, equipment and personal possessions. Things need to be moved or removed so we can come alongside the bed. Pillows, extra blankets, towels, etc. all are moved so that we work with just a top sheet covering the deceased and the fitted sheet removed from the mattress to help form a sort of cocoon. Every type of hospital bed is different and we need to figure out how to lower the side rails and bring the mattress height to the level of the cot. Once this is done, it is usually a “One, two, three . . .” and slide onto the cot. Sometimes it’s a smooth slide, other times it’s a literal drag depending on the size and shape of the body.

Mortuary cots are equipped with a pair of seat belts to prevent the deceased from moving about during transport and while you seek snugness of fit, one always worries about the frailty, and the risk of breaking bones. Once they are strapped in, the cot has a zip close cover to conceal the identity of who we are transporting. Sometimes families who have said their goodbyes return at this point for one last look at their loved ones, only to be taken aback to find them removed from their hospital bed and on the cot. There is nothing more mortifying than to open the cot cover and see their family member in the bareness of death. These are especially emotional moments which we try and dissuade but it seems their presence on the cot only strengthens people’s resolve to see them one more time.

Should certain Rabbis arrive beforehand, we often find the deceased on the floor though this is more often the case should the death occur in a home or care facility. The religious imperative notwithstanding, there is often no smooth or graceful way of moving the body onto the mortuary cot except through a plain dead lift (no pun intended). If you’re lucky, the Rabbi will help but sometimes you have to call on nursing staff or even a grieving family member to assist. I definitely find these situations challenging. 

While there is a growing movement to die at home, what comes with it is the increased difficulty of removing someone who has died from their home. Houses simply aren’t designed to accommodate mortuary cots, and in these cases we use a portable, legless cot, very much akin to a body board. Navigating narrow hallways, staircases and small elevators often make these situations inelegant and a test of brute strength. The risk of personal injury can be high and to sometimes clumsily navigate a home with a deceased in the presence of their loved ones cannot be seen as comforting.

In picking up someone who has died, we are often the first face of the Chevrah Kadisha. It is a difficult time for the family and can be a difficult time for us as well. We are not visiting the sick, we are encountering the grieving for the first time, and in most cases at their worst time. It is often not easy emotionally or physically, and requires a certain kind of sensitivity that often falls outside the literature of Chevrah Kadisha writings.

Kerry Swartz is a member of the Community Chevrah Kadisha in Vancouver and Victoria BC. He is a professional photographer holding an MFA from Concordia University in Montreal. He is a graduate of the “>avod v’Nichum. Kerry is happily married with two teenagers who think his library is gross.  He has had several prior entries in the  




Winter 2016:   

During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the course. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S). This course will run at two times: from January 5th to March 22nd, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST, and from January 11th to March 28th, Noon to 1:30 pm EST/9-10:30 am PST (12 sessions at each time). There will be an online orientation session Monday January 4th at 12-1:30 pm EST, and a second orientation session on Monday, January 4th at 8-9:30 pm EST (Students may attend either one). For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.

This course is an in-depth study of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the activities and mitzvot of guarding the body of the deceased (shmirah) and of ritually preparing the body for burial (taharah). This is very much a “how-to” course as well as an examination of the liturgy, and of the unusual situations that can arise. The course also looks at the impact of the work on the community and on the members of the Chevrah Kadisha, and provides an ongoing review of best practices. Studies include: spiritual transformative power; personal testimony; meaning and purpose; face of God; Tahor and Tamei; Tachrichim; History; manuals, tefillah, training, impediments; safety; and complications.


NOTE: Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization can receive a 20% discount. There are clergy and student discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.


You can “>jewish-funerals.org/gamreg.


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