April 18, 2008
by Leslie What
The first time I touched a dead man, I was twenty-one, a student nurse on a rotation to ICU, bathing an elderly man whose failed heart required a pacemaker to spark his pulse. He was critically ill, unconscious, sheet pale, with a blue tinge to his lips.
On the monitor, a green line traveled like a fast train across the screen. Every second, the train jumped its tracks to climb over a peak. The peak took shape, then faded away. The machine beeped once a second, a now familiar sound because of television medical shows; at the time, it was a disorienting mechanical heartbeat. I washed my patient's face and neck, dipped the washcloth in the basin, and spread warm water across his chest.
My supervisor, a kindly RN with the compassion of a hundred mothers, watched me for a few seconds before placing one hand upon my shoulder. "You don't need to finish," she said. "He's dead."
I did not believe her. Nothing had changed to mark the moment between life and death. The machine continued beating as the pacemaker sent out its timed electrical impulses. The line of trains on the monitor was not erased with his passing. I stared at my patient's chest to see if he had stopped breathing. I wasn't sure. His color was unchanged, his skin still warm.
It was embarrassing that my patient died without my noticing. I wanted to quit school, thinking that a nurse ought to know the difference between life and death.
My supervisor noticed my look of panic and reassured me. She explained that the pacemaker worked fine, but the gentleman's heart had stopped. I'd made a simple mistake and nothing to be ashamed of. How else did we learn, except by doing? She turned off the monitor, helped me disconnect his tubes, and instructed me to straighten up before calling in the family.
I finished the bath and dressed my patient in a clean cotton gown. I closed his eyes and folded his hands across his belly. I brought his relatives from the waiting room to view the body. They had expected his death but when they wept, I cried also.
A generation later and I no longer work as a nurse. When I wash the dead now, it is as a volunteer member of a religious burial society. Jews believe that caring for the dead is one of the highest honors imaginable. How humbling that strangers trust me —- a woman incapable of understanding the differences between life and death –- to perform this ceremony.
The community is responsible for burying its members; our custom is to clothe rich and poor alike in simple linen shrouds and bury them in plain pine boxes. This reflects our faith that after death, the slate is wiped clean and all are judged on equal terms. God is unimpressed with trinkets and finery, only with the merits of the soul.
On the eve of the ceremonial washing (called Tahara), a call is placed to several volunteers of a burial society known as the Chevra Kadisha, or sacred society. Our custom is to arrange for burial as soon as possible after death. For the sake of modesty, women are asked to care for women, men for men. In our small community, it can be difficult to recruit volunteers. Four is the ideal number, but sometimes, we can only find three who are available on short notice.
Tahara is a spiritual cleansing more than a physical one. We bathe the departed to allow her to enter God's realm in a state of ritual purity. The act of Tahara washes away sins, impurities, imperfections, and returns the spirit to that state of perfection she experienced in the womb.
The ceremony is generally scheduled for early morning to allow the volunteers time to prepare for work. Four women arrive at the mortuary lobby and emotionally ready ourselves: we form a circle, hold hands, recite psalms, and contemplate the significance of what we are about to do.
The deceased might be a friend or colleague or someone known by name. She might be a stranger who lived outside the community but made her desire to return known to her family. The burial society exists to allow every Jew the opportunity for return.
There is no typical scenario. Each time we gather is unique and emotionally wrenching. Each time we are hesitant before beginning, in awe of the importance of the task ahead of us.
The preparation room is behind the casket room, where rows of velvet-lined caskets costing up to $7,000 are displayed. The funeral director unlocks the door and instructs us to call should we need assistance. He is sincere and kind, even though our work clearly interrupts his schedule. The room has a tile floor.
There is a drain located beneath a slanted steel table. On the table is a body covered by a sheet. I do not know the dead woman, but one of the volunteers has learned her Hebrew name and shares that with us. The woman was in her mid-eighties and died after an infection and other complications following a hip replacement. Attempting to save her life, the doctors had amputated her leg. In a more observant community, the leg would have been buried alongside her.
I fold down the sheet, then straighten the dead woman's hospital gown. She lies face up, her head raised on a hard plastic cradle. Her body is solidly cold from being kept in storage. The stump of her missing limb appears to have been hastily sewn closed but there is no redness or swelling and the incision lacks the raw look of a fresh wound. Her eyes are closed; her facial expression is serene. Her struggle, quite obviously, has ended. Looking at her, I truly believe that her spirit rests in peace.
Though she is a stranger to me, I know that she is someone's mother, sister, wife. I worry that I am not religious enough to do what I have come here to do; I would step aside if there were someone more observant to take my place. My sincere intent is to honor this woman by caring for her after death. It is a chance for redemption for my not doing enough to ease her burdens during life.
I wash my hands and light a candle in its glass holder, then ask forgiveness for any unintentional indignities, forgiveness for any commission or omission on my part, which might offend. I ask God to pardon and forgive all sins and to admit the soul of this precious being into the Garden of Eden.
We fill pails with lukewarm water, uncover the body, then gently pour over it a steady stream of water while reciting, "She is a well of living waters and flowing streams from Lebanon" from the Song of Songs. After this initial cleansing, we are ready to begin the holy task of Tahara.
We wash our hands and say a prayer for purification, then fill three 8-quart pails of water. Sarah, Golda, and Kate pour the water in a continuous flow over the entire body as we recite, "tahora hi — she is pure". I assist by tilting the body to one side to allow for washing the back. The missing limb has taken away her center of gravity; when the first pail is empty, Sarah moves to help me hold the body. After, we pat dry the body and cover her with clean towels.
It is difficult not to think about the pain this woman endured before death; there's a sense of relief in seeing that now she is beyond pain. She has a dignified beauty that is startling. With gentle tenderness, we dress her in linen trousers, shirt, a head covering, and shroud.
"She looks like an angel," Sarah says.
We line the plain coffin with a clean sheet and transfer her body there. I sprinkle a thin layer of earth over her shroud in deference the Deuteronomy verse: God's earth shall atone for God's people. We fold up the edges of the sheet around her body, as if tucking her in for a very long night.
Sarah pulls us into a circle before closing the coffin.
Golda leads us in a contemplative psalm. We did not know this woman in life and pray that we have honored her in death, knowing we can offer little more.
I grew up a mostly happy child in a loving family deeply scarred by grief. Everyone on my mother's side was killed during the Holocaust, yet not one grave exists where I can visit and remember those who perished. The Germans not only killed my grandmother and grandfather, they destroyed the community who charged with the noble task of honoring the dead. If the dead were buried, they were thrown naked in a mass unmarked grave.
My mother taught me to believe in God. She tried to explain why God had spared her life, yet allowed her little sister to die. She believed that pain and suffering ended with death, and that she survived because she was the only one strong enough to bear the burdens imposed by living after the Holocaust. My mother was not the first to say that living can be more difficult than dying.
There have been times in my life when I have felt bitterness towards the burdens of this history. There have been times when my grief and sense of loss was unbearable, when I longed for the power to go back and change what was. There have been times when I have hurt too much to want to live. Yet like my mother, I was strong enough to go on.
I don't know if I participate in the Tahara for the benefit of the dead or because I must do something to help the living. My motives do not affect my choice to volunteer. I find it comforting to acknowledge that suffering and pain end on the eve of death, at least for the one about to die. A man cannot cry at his own funeral, while even the most distant relatives can shed tears.
How could God have let the Holocaust happen? There is no answer. I see no other response but to try and set things right as best I can. Washing the dead has given me an opportunity to make amends for that which can never be forgiven or forgotten.
I fit the lid on the coffin and set the candle over the wood. Again, we ask forgiveness for any commission or omission that may have offended. We hum wordless a chant called niggun as we push the coffin feet first into a dark chapel where the family waits.
They introduce themselves and thank us for our work. The eldest daughter grasps my hand and does not let go. Like all of us, she feels helpless in the face of tragedy. Her gratitude for our efforts shows through her deep sorrow.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," is all I say. I am emotional but chose not to share more. Now is the time for the family to process their grief, not for me.
"How did she look?" the daughter asks.
When last she saw her mother, the suffering had been unbearable. Her mother's face was wracked with pain, her breathing labored. The struggle before death had been immense.
My answer is heartfelt. "She looked at peace," I say. I explain the significance of what we did and how angelic she looked dressed in her white robes. We embrace silently and stare into the candle, watching as the flame flickers, alternating between hope and sparks of despair.
Originally published in Parabola, Summer 2002
Leslie What is a Nebula Award-winning writer from Oregon. Recent essays and stories appear in "Midstream," "Asimov's," "The Clackamas Review," and "Logorrhea" from Bantam Books. A new collection of short fiction, "Crazy Love," will be published in July 2008 by Wordcraft of Oregon. This essay appeared first in "Parabola." Visit Whatworld at www.lesliewhat.net for links to Leslie's work.
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