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.


  1. Woah. That's quite scary. It shows that everything has a purpose...even an inanimate object!

    It's amazing that you are able to do taharas. I don't know where you get the strength for it but it has to come from somewhere! May it be a zechus for you to have a long and healthy life!

  2. Thanks for that post!

    As guy who does taharas as well, I share your observations. Hard to explain what motivates us, but it definitely gives some solid perspective about life. Whatever emunah issues we have deep inside, it all dissipates when we are doing the ultimate chessed, and the fragility of life, and the big piture is right in front of us, it is a valuable thing.

    On a lighter note... TWO HOURS?? lol, the guys do it in 30 minutes (45 tops, if there are issues). Funny, when they schedule a woman tahara before a man, the guys have to wait ouside for you gals to finish up, we always roll our eyes... you take FOREVER!

    Seriously, keep up the good work. Chasak!

  3. Devorah...

    If I can do it, anyone can. If you hang around me long enough, I'll convince you to do it! I really think it's something you'd appreciate.


    Two hours with the travel time. This wasn't local. 45 minutes sounds right.

    Thank you!

  4. it's funny you posted about death, it's been on my mind lately.
    my grandmother died on a shabbos and my father felt that it would be a good experience for me and my brother to do shmira. we took a shift in the afternoon and it profoundly changed my life.
    i was in the presence of a body that had been alive, and now wasn't, and all i could feel was reverence. i remember thinking how confusing humans are....we can't seem to treat one another properly when we are walking among the living, yet we feel a natural respect and awe for the was a good experience, although when i tell the story people generally wonder how my father could let a fourteen year old do that...

  5. I love that story. There is so much hashgacha pratis in this world and when we recognize it, it has the ability to be so comforting, especially in these very difficult times.
    Thank you for sharing this story.

  6. colloquiallyspeaking...

    Oh, wow! It's amazing that you look back at it as a good experience. I can't imagine allowing my kids to do that. I wonder if that's just an overprotectiveness.


    I'm not one of those people that naturally sees hashgacha in everything that happens. But this one was so obvious...there was no way to miss it.

  7. MW-besides for the fact that it's a little bit of a scary thing to do taharas, how did you manage to do it while you were raising a family?! Is that something you'd recommend to someone who has little children at home? To be able to stop, drop and run over to a funeral home on a moments notice?
    I'm not about to be convinced that fast on this sounds rather difficult.

  8. Devorah...

    I did not do it when my kids were babies. And I realized that you have a pretty new baby, and now might not be a good time. I meant it as something to think about for some day. But it's not something you have to stop, drop and run for. If you're available, you go.

    But, putting that aside, it's really not scary at all. It's an amazing experience and so rewarding. You feel so good afterwards. Nothing you do will ever make you feel this way.

  9. Some say there are no coincidences, only evidence of haShem working in our lives.

    Hang in there. The work you do is very Holy, even though the anonymity and and sequestered nature of your work may prevent you from receiving that deserved appreciation.

    Please know that you ARE appreciated.

  10. What a close call! I'm glad they discovered the error in time.

    We always ask the funeral home to leave the toe tag and/or hospital armband on the person. We can then verify the name of the person before we start the taharah. Of course, mistakes can still be made, but it's less likely that way.

  11. Ben-Yehudah...

    I like the anonymity. It's how I know that my motives are pure. Thank you.


    I'm not sure how the mistake happened. The tags are always left on. Maybe this body came from home, as opposed to the hospital, so there was no tag. Or maybe the names were similar. I don't know...but I do know that this is an extremely uncommon mistake.

  12. What an interesting story! I've heard other stories where the deceased actually "sat up" during the taharah (they were actually dead), but this beats them all.

    As a long time member of the Chevra Kadisha (granted I'm young, but Dad had me inducted at when I was in high school). I participated in my first tahara at age 16 and was thoroughly freaked out by the experience, I couldn't bring myself to look at the deceased and instead recited the tefillos/tehillim with an elderly member of the Chevra Kadisha who couldn't do any of the lifting anymore.

    I've done lots of funerals since then - this is perhaps the men's job and not the women's - wherein young guys with strong backs are always required to help move the dirt pile and fill in the grave.

    I have done two taharos since then, one was a particularly meaningful experience for me, and was the 2nd tahara I participated in (I also did the actually tahara itself with the water) for the OBGYN who delivered me. It was such a profound experience helping escort out of this world the man who escorted me in.

    Being part of the Chevra Kadisha truly is an awe-inspiring experience that anyone should aspire to participate in (if they aren't a Kohen and can handle the aspects of being around a deceased, that is).

  13. Sitting up during a tahara?? THAT would freak me out.
    But I agree...being part of the Chevra Kaddisha is an awe-inspiring experience.