September 19, 2019

Terrible Taharah

[Editor's Note: This was written some time ago, looking back. It reflects on a past experience and the author's response to it then.  The phrase 'comedy of errors' seems to float into conciousness as it unfolds. This entry is intended for amusement, with an aspect of satire. Enjoy. Any similarities to persons, living or dead is coincidental.]

The day of my first Taharah (ritual preparation of the deceased) with the local Chevrah where I had moved, began with an early morning phone call inquiring about my availability. Four deaths occurred over Shabbat and I was told there were three Taharot (plural of Taharah) to perform. The gravelly voice of the Synagogue’s funeral director asked me to meet him at the Shul (synagogue) parking lot at 10:00 am. While I could have more easily driven to the cemetery where the group works, I did as I was asked. I had no time to think about how things might unfold, as this was a team I had not worked with before. My only concerns were whether there would be new procedures from ones I knew, and keeping up with their expectations while learning their methods was paramount in my mind.

I waited about 15 minutes in the Shul parking lot, then I texted the funeral director that I was waiting for him. He asked me to take a set of keys from his desk for a van and call me when I arrived at a certain destination. Soon I was at the rear of a convalescent hospital and realized I was picking up a body. I’d never been to a morgue, let alone knew anything about protocol or paperwork; I simply arrived and presented myself as someone who had come for a body. I didn’t even know the deceased’s name.

Without a name, let alone any paperwork, they quickly figured out I was there for the Jewish man. I went to a small refrigerated room and a quick check of toe tags identified a Jewish man; I finally found someone from the Chevrah to confirm his identity. After some phone calls with the funeral director and the hospital administrator, all was in order.

I had never used a collapsible stretcher, nor was I prepared for the lack of assistance hospital staff gave me in the simple act of removing the man from where I found him to the van. After much strain I was underway, and was then phoned to pick up the funeral director on the way to the cemetery. Thanks to a hands-free unit, I drove and listened to him deal with scheduling three different funerals, gently argue with one bereaved son who insisted that Hebrew was not required on his mother’s soon-to-be unveiled headstone, and schedule interviews for a new part-time Ba’al Koreh (Torah reader).

We arrived at the cemetery, removed the Meit (deceased) and took him to the Taharah room. It is a full-time dedicated facility with its own Mikvah (ritual bath) and had been somewhat prepared for our arrival by male staff who were obviously employees of the Chevrah Kadisha. The Taharah Rosh (lead or head) is the Shul’s handyman, the second-in-charge is the Chevrah director’s brother-in-law, the other member is his family friend from Latvia who mostly lives in an apartment at the cemetery and is the primary Shomer (person who guards the body before burial).

Relations between all of these men – all in their 70s – are less than cordial. None of them likes one another, and they bring that with them into the Taharah room. The atmosphere is tense, loud and hurried. I have now worked with them many times since my first Taharah in this group, and I still get yelled at for something as simple as holding a Meit’s shoulder inches away from where someone says I should. Bandages are hardly ever removed. Catheters, IV lines, even nicotine patches are only sometimes peeled away. Hair is never combed, fingernails never clipped or cleaned. I was recently admonished for taking too much time on a task when I discovered the meit had a hearing aid I found and removed.

There are two framed and faded hand written posters on the wall showing the traditional liturgy. The Taharot, like my first, begin with everyone quickly reciting, often with imperceptible and unrecognizable pronunciation, Chamol (the prayer asking for forgiveness for what is about to be done). The work was done in (and still is) in a somewhat chaotic (seemngly without reverence for the deceased) fashion. Once complete, everyone then recites Henei Mitaso Shel Shlomo (one of the closing prayers in the Taharah). Everyone then departs quickly, no group discussion or review, and since that first time I find that I am frequently left alone cleaning up supplies, linens, garbage, etc.

During my first Taharah, a Rabbi burst in insisting we had to come to the sanctuary “right away” as there was a graveside funeral we were obliged to participate in to make a Minyan (a quorum for ritual purposes). The team leader yelled at him to leave since we were “busy” but assured him we’d be there when we were done. This was not good enough for the Rabbi who sought out the funeral director so as to have us finish quickly. Shortly after this, we found ourselves carrying the casket uphill for about fifteen minutes until we reached the freshly dug plot. The Rabbi said a few nice words and as we were about to lower the casket someone realized that a section of sod had fallen into the grave; and the casket would not rest level within the hole. So, moving the casket aside (and being the newcomer), I was obliged to jump into the hole and dig out the large piece of sod. I made things level, extracted myself from the hole and the casket was eventually lowered into the plot.

To these men, it was all just in a day’s work, and I left feeling that while I participated in something meaningful, it was an unsettling and exhausting process. I continue to work with these men for the good of the community but I’ve rarely seen the kind of reverence and respect described by others who are part of Chevrot Kadisha in their Taharah stories. I do what I do as a service to the deceased, the grieving family, and the community. I consider the politics and personalities I encounter during a Taharah as part of the challenge, and hope that someday my presence might have some positive effect on the others.

That said, should I die anytime soon, though I value the concept and want one, I would not want these men performing a Taharah on me.


Kerry Swartz is (now, and has been) a member of a community Chevrah Kadisha wherever he has lived .He is a professionally trained photographer holding an MFA from Concordia University in Montreal. He is a student of the “>Kavod v’Nichum, working with and contributing to the social media, fundraising, and grant writing committees and has the role of director of communications of  

Kerry Swartz