Today’s post is by guest blogger, Sheindel Shapiro.
We took our places around the steel table upon which the body of Mrs. Berthe Berliner* lay. I stood by her head. In unison, we said the first prayer: “Master of the universe! Have compassion on Beila, daughter of Moses, this deceased, for she is a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….” Then we began our holy work.
For a number of years, I was privileged to be a part of the women’s branch of the Chevrah Kadisha, the volunteers who prepare the bodies of the deceased prior to burial in accordance with Jewish tradition.
You may think it strange to call the handling of a dead body a privilege, possibly because American culture has made death frightening. For many, our frame of reference is horror movies, Halloween, ghosts and goblins; we find death both intriguing and repulsive. Judaism, in contrast, teaches that we have a soul which enlivens the body and that when the soul is gone, the body that remains is still holy and must be treated with respect and loving care.
My experiences with the Chevrah Kadisha are among the deepest and most meaningful of my life. To be physically close to the dead body, to cleanse and to groom it, is to know without a doubt that the body is only a vessel for the soul. To cradle and embrace it, to purify it and send it off on its final journey ennobles you. You return to your husband, your children, your life, filled with appreciation for every breath you are granted.
* A pseudonym