Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Last Kindness

I'm already in bed when the call comes. I'm needed for a taharah. It's been a long day. I'm tired. But I get up, get dressed and join the two other women at the funeral home.

Erev Sukkos. The decorations are up. The food is ready. There is still a lot to do, but everything is proceeding on schedule. It is well past noon when I get the call. The funeral home, this time, is some distance away, and I know that I will be out of the house for two or three hours. I hesitate for a fraction of a second. And then I go.

It's the night of Tisha B'av. There is a levaya scheduled for the morning, and the taharah needs to be done before then. I realize that my day will be starting a lot earlier than I would have liked. But I don't even hesitate. It seems fitting, somehow, to begin the day with this.

I'm the type of person who feels faint at the sight of blood. I look away when my kids get their shots or have blood drawn. I'm squeamish. I don't deal well with unpleasant smells or sights. And death scares me. So I am hard-pressed to come up with an explanation for why I decided that this was something I could do. But I do know why I continue to do it. Why, despite my responsibilities to my family, a full time job, and my very busy schedule, I rarely decline an opportunity to perform a taharah.

There are some obvious benefits, of course. It has made me appreciate life so very much more. I can no longer take life, good health and the absence of physical suffering for granted. I am reminded of what it means to be alive and of what really matters when we are no longer. I have been taught that the limited time we have in this world is really all we have to do what must be done. To prepare for what really matters and what really counts.

And sometimes there are unexpected lessons.

I am not usually available during working hours, so I was not present at Thursday morning's taharah. Later that day, chevra kaddisha members were frantically summoned to an emergency taharah. I've rushed to taharahs before that had to be completed quickly in time for the levaya. They were urgent, but they didn't qualify as emergencies, and I wondered about what was causing this panic.

I heard the story later.

The morning taharah was being sent for burial to Israel. The family was going along, and the levaya was scheduled for Friday morning. The women who performed that taharah placed the body in a special box, and it was taken to the airport for the Thursday evening flight.

The El Al security people opened the box and as they passed the metal detector wand over the body, a pacemaker caused it to beep. The family was puzzled. Their mother had no pacemaker.

After some investigation, the mistake was discovered. There was, indeed, a pacemaker. But this was not the body that was supposed to be flown to Israel.

It was a terrible embarrassment to the chevra kaddisha, and a tremendous inconvenience to the family. The emergency taharah was done as quickly as possible, but they missed the flight. The family flew with the body after Shabbos, and the levaya was postponed to Sunday.

But the story could have had a tragic ending. In the best case scenario, the switch would have been discovered when the second taharah was done - probably after the levaya and the burial. In the worst case, the mistake would never have been discovered.

I don't know why this had to happen. I don't know why the family was meant to go through this aggravation. But I do know that there was a plan. The pacemaker did its job while the woman was alive. And it still had a purpose to serve after she died.