Bending the rules
He was a boy of 19. He had a full curly beard and brown hair that flowed in waves. His father found him. He had duck-taped a plastic bag over his head and inserted a propane hose.
Only two of us were available to perform the taharah, the first taharah for both of us in many months, although both of us were experienced in this holy ritual. I was asked to lead. When we arrived at the funeral home, right away things were unusual. The father met us almost immediately and made two very specific requests: (1) that he (the father) be allowed to see his son prior to closing the casket, as he needed to see him differently than the horrid vision so compelling that met him when he found his son; and (2) that their son be buried in the street clothes provided, a strong demand of his wife. No, they didn’t want tachrichim under the clothes. And, no, they didn’t want the tachrichim laid on top of their son.
A rush of feelings overwhelmed me. I could immediately relate to the father, who just lost his son and more than that, had found him and had that image burned into his memory like a hot brand. And, of course, I wanted to help him in any way that I could. Coupled with these feelings and deepening my concern were the strong feelings inside me that taharah has specific ideas on how things are to happen, and right away we were not “following the rules.” On one hand we were supposed to be anonymous, the family and community were not supposed to know who participated in the taharah, and especially, the family was not to know us so as not to feel obligated to thank us. So the fact that the father had approached us directly was already an assault on regularity. Then there were the requests he made, which again were outside of the norm, and on the surface seemed extraordinary and something inappropriate to request; but upon a moment’s thought, it was obvious that these could be accommodated if we were just willing to not follow strict traditional practices. Inside I felt overwhelmed with compassion for this father and family, torn between doing traditional practices and breaking tradition to meet the needs of this family. In the end, through all of this, which lasted only moments, I remembered to ask myself, “whose death is this?”, and I was given a way to navigate these strong waves of emotion, and come to a clear resolution as to how respect both tradition and this family.
We promised to honor the father, the wife, and the son.
The taharah process was not difficult. There were no medical devices to worry about, no bleeding to worry about, no bedsores, no open wounds, nada. This was a healthy young man in his prime. It was a bit tricky at times since there were only two of us, but it was manageable.
But the taharah itself was difficult. Very difficult. This was a healthy young man in his prime. He was the same age as my colleague’s son, and a decade younger than my son. We both have children and could not easily accept this young man’s death.
In addition, it occurred to me that bending the rules (doing something other than what is Jewish tradition under the local minhag for taharah) to honor the family was certainly not new. Yet, these requests seemed hard to do.
After some reflection, and with inner guidance, I thought of a respectful and meaningful way to make this work for the two of us on the taharah team, and for the family.
We proceeded to do a “normal” taharah on this young man, just the two of us. We had to pour the taharah water twice as we had an unexpected break in the flow of water. No worries, we just did it again. When we finished drying him after the pouring of the water, it was the normal time to dress and casket the deceased. But instead, we were to dress him in street clothes, and not the vernacular suit and tie, rather we were given an old shirt, colored underpants, jeans, fun socks, and shoes. I halted. The dressing is part of the liturgy, part of the midwifing of this holy soul. So I could not just “dress him in street clothes.”
I remembered another taharah many years ago, in which a man’s wife requested that he be buried in a robe he had received when he was awarded an honorary degree. We agreed to honor her request, and when the time came, we simply dressed him in the normal tachrichim, and afterwards had the funeral home personnel come in to cut the robe up the back and lay it over him like a blanket. It worked beautifully. But today we were not allowed to do that.
We looked for the first time at the clothes provided by the family. The shirt had metal snaps. Another rule to bend? I thought of yet another taharah, years ago for a teenaged girl, where the father had requested that her favorite jacket be included in the casket; it had metal snaps and metal zippers not only up the front but also elsewhere on the jacket as part of its style, all of which I painfully removed preserving the integrity of the jacket before giving it to the team to place into the aron (a process that took over an hour). This time, however, honor for the family required that I leave the shirt alone. I wrestled with this for a bit and then decided it was simply OK, in fact it was more than OK, for kavod hameit dictated that it was required for us to honor this family and this youth by dressing him in this shirt. The pants were simple black denim jeans with a belt (with a metal buckle). Again, the same principles applied. We laid the clothes aside until needed.
We prepared the aron as usual, with sovev in place and earth from Israel sprinkled inside.
Once the aron was ready, we didn’t just dress him in street clothes as requested. Instead, we carefully laid each piece of tachrichim over his body where that piece belonged, and said the liturgy for that part of clothing, and then removed it and dressed him in his street clothes. And so it went with each piece of the tachrichim, each piece with its liturgy followed by street clothes, everything but the head covering, which we left off until after the father had seen him.
Well, almost everything. I just couldn’t put shoes on him. Just didn’t seem right. So we left his feet wearing his colorful fun socks.
Before casketing him, I carefully folded and laid the tachrichim into the sovev creating a bed upon which he would rest, with the tallit laid in waiting over these, to be wrapped around his shoulders. We laid him into the waiting sovev, wrapped his tallit around him and took him out to say goodbye to his father.
After the father had spent time with him, we brought the son back into the taharah room, where we tied the gartel of the tachrichim around his waist, being careful to make sure the knots were just right. Then we tucked the removed tzitzit from his tallit into the gartel, placed the sherbloch over his eyes and mouth, and placed the head covering over his kippah.
We asked for forgiveness, closed the lid, read the remaining prayers and readings, and returned him to the waiting room with a candle on the casket over his head, where he stayed for only a few minutes before being whisked away for burial.
As we began to clean up, I felt numb. We had completed our task, yet it was not over. Something seemed unfinished. We went through the process of finishing, but I felt both that we had done something very good here, and at the same time, I felt that something was truly out of harmony. This death was simply wrong and we were unable to fix that.
After cleaning up and ending the taharah process as usual, we went to a local restaurant for a meal and some decompression. Then it hit me how hard this had been for each of us. Neither of us could express what we felt, nor how deeply it had impacted us. But after an hour of sharing and just being together, we both felt almost whole again.
After getting home, and thinking about this, I realized that although I had thought our luncheon discussion had enabled me to process this taxing and unusual ritual experience, it became obvious as I began to write this story that I needed to write this, as I was still processing the deep emotional impact of that day. And, yes, it was a blessing and a very humbling thing in which to participate. But it was also a very hard thing to do, and it will take time to integrate.
I pray that he be guided on his new path, and that we be forgiven for our inadequacies. I know I wasn’t up to my usual skill level, and, I although I felt that we did the best we could, we didn’t do it perfectly, we tried to do the right things under the circumstances, and still, still, I felt we didn’t do enough, we couldn’t do enough. And, that emptiness remains…
Yet, how can one ever do enough for one so young and prime and beautiful?
May his memory be a blessing.
Rick Light has been teaching spiritual development in various ways for more than 30 years and has been studying and practicing meditation for more than 40 years. He is a leader in the community of those who prepare Jewish bodies for burial, has published four books in this regard, and for 18 years was President of a local Chevrah Kadisha he started in 1996. He is on the Board of Directors of Kavod v’Nichum, is a faculty member of the Gamliel Institute, and continues to lecture and raise awareness about Jewish death and burial practices at the local, state, and national levels. For more information see richardalight.com.
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE
The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting roughly in January, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).
The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).
Information on attending the course preview, the online orientation, and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information.
You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.
For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.
Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is October 18th.
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Gamliel Graduate Courses
Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have completed three or more Gamliel Institute courses should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. We plan to begin this Fall, in October and November. The first series will be on Psalms. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact us – register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email email@example.com.
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If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.