October 13, 2019

Lessons for the Living

“I met Holly Blue Hawkins at the Limmud Festival in England last year. She led a session called “What 20 years in a chevra kadisha has taught me about living.” I wept through the entire hour.

Hawkins is the head of the chevra kadisha (burial society) in Santa Cruz, California, She also serves on the board of trustees of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of the state of California, teaches end-of-life planning classes in synagogues and schools, participates in Death Cafes (informal discussion groups about death and dying), and speaks at Kavod v’Nichum (literally “honor and comfort”) conferences.

The Jewish process of preparing a body for burial is dead simple, as it were. Members of the chevra kadisha wash their hands. They say a prayer asking forgiveness for any inadvertent offenses committed during the tahara, the process of cleansing and purification. They remove jewelry, wipe the body with warm cloths, wash it in a ritual bath or with poured buckets of water, recite “tehora hee” (“she is pure”) together. They dry the body tenderly, dress it in plain white cotton muslin or linen, tie the strings on the clothing so that the loops form a letter shin for Shaddai, one of God’s names. They may wrap the body in a prayer shawl, if the person wore one to pray in life. Then they place the body in a plain pine box and wrap it in a white cotton or linen sheet.

Hawkins’ interest in the liminal process of dying began back in the 1980s, when she was co-leading support groups in the Maui Community Corrections Facility. After moving to California, she worked as a paralegal, helping clients with estate planning and advance-care directives, before moving into chevra kadisha service. Here’s some wisdom gleaned from her Limmud talk and from a long-ranging interview conducted last week.”

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