osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Odd Reflections: Chevra Kadisha

A conversation with my brother had me reflecting on when I used to work with the chevra kaddisha. For those unfamiliar, the "holy brotherhood" (as is the translation) are those that are responsible for the ritual preparation of a dead Jew. Men do the tahara (purification) for men, women for women. A dead body (any dead body, Jewish or not) is considered worthy of respect because it once housed a soul and is thus made in the image of God.

Shmuel also did Chevra work back when he was in Chicago. For most people, the first tahara is difficult. Our cultural reactions to dead bodies are either terribly sensitive or terribly brutal. But a good chevra has a solid mindset that dedicates itself with proper kavana (intent, mindset) to the task. That usually carriers the newcomer through the first experience. We take our cues from those around us, and if everyone else is acting with respect and reverence, then folks generally suppress either the shock or panic/levity that is typical of first exposure to a dead body in our culture and move on to an appropriate mindset.

I realized, although I have not thought of it for some years, that I never had a difficult tahara or bad reaction -- even on the first. I found the whole thing very comforting. Here I was in the presence of a dead man, whose only connection with me is that we are all part of a greater tradition going back to Sinai. He died never knowing who would do his tahara, but knowing that the community in which he lived would care for him. And so to, do I know that when I die, if I am near a Jewish community, that they will tend to me for no reason other than it in our communal responsibility to each other. Even in death, we strengthen our bonds to one another as klall yisroel and to God whose covenant we keep. We neither reject our dead with callousness nor foist them on a professional caste of undertakers -- themselves made outcasts by their association with death. In all incarnations of the chevra throughout our history, how we treat our dead has proven one of the most immutable of customs, and our mutual communal responsibility to each other remains a link from generation to generation. When I think of the dead I tended I find comfort, because it reminds me that someday some group of men will do the same for me -- with reverence and dignity and proper respect, without coarseness or familiarity.

"Better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting, for it is the end of all flesh, and the wise take this to heart." Eccl 7:2. It is the lamentable shallowness and fear of mortality in our culture that makes this quote seem morbid or depressing or anti-joy. In recognizing that the end of all is the house of mourning, we appreciate and savor our own lives for what they are -- and all too brief gift often squandered without thought from one moment to the next. But more to the point, it is in the house of mourning rather than the house of feasting that we see our true humanity reflected. Anyone can come together for a feast. But who will come together to honor and respect the dead bound to their final rest? It is in this final show of respect that we acknowledge our common humanity, our common debt to the past, and our common hope of the future.

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