My mother was a prominent member of the women's segment of Heska Amuna Synagogue's Chevra Kadisha. A chevra kadisha committee is responsible for carrying out the logistics and traditions surrounding deceased Jews. One of the primary duties is tahara, the ritual of purifying a corpse for burial, carried out by a minimum of four official, gender-relevant Jewish adults.
And I am 14, in that weird liminal state between being a Jewish adult and a legal child.
My lifelong love afair with the internet is still in the courting stages and I've flunked out of every, sport, artistic pursuit, and enforced social situation that my mother deperately tried to push me into. My hobbies were wandering the woods near the house, skirting the carefully guarded borders monitored by the neighborhood dogs, trespassing in yards without dogs, and graverobbing.
I would find the corpses of possums, birds, or stray dogs and carefully stash them where nature could take its course in peace. Once the flesh had rotted away sufficiently and the tendons had dried, I would take the body home and soak it in bleach to clean the bones. For some reason, my parents let me do this; I guess they were just happy to have something actively interest me.
I was a lifelong atheist, which for Jews isn’t really a problem, but I was also direly morbid. I’d always had a desire to participate in the chevra kadisha, but my ambitions would have been to see a dead body, not a dead person. It felt like an inappropriate mindset to bring to a funeral practice.
So it’s Fourth of July weekend. I’m out in the blazing 90 degree weather, which given it’s Knoxville, Tennessee counts as mildly balmy, weeding my mom’s garden. There’s dirt caked under my nails and around my knees.
My mother steps out onto the porch and says, “Sarah Rosenburg just passed away. Do you want to do the chevra kadisha with us? Everyone’s out of town for Fourth of July. We don’t have enough people here to do it. Can you come with me?”
(Full confession: I don’t actually remember her name, but there’s a fairly good chance she was a Sarah.)
Jews don’t embalm and funerals are ideally held three days after time of death. As I mentioned, it was also 90 degrees. The body will not be getting any fresher.
I scrub down and get dressed in the cleanest sneakers I can find and a blouse that manages to pass my mother’s discerning tastes. An hour later, we’re standing in the waiting room of Rose’s Mortuary.
Our partners are my mother’s friend, Martha, and her daughter, Ellen, also fourteen and just a few months past her bat mitzvah. Ellen was, and still is, the pinnacle of fashion-flaunting high-achieving extracurricular-participating boyfriend-and-career-holding Nice Jewish Girlness. Meanwhile, I flunked out of Nice Jewish Girl so badly that I’m currently training to be a Nice Jewish Boy.
We meet each other’ eyes, silent. Her hair is perfect and I still have dirt on my knees. Neither of us are sure what we’re doing here.
The nice young men in their tasteful suits show us into the back room. We pass the threshold from comforting fresh flowers and pamphlets on handling grief into glaring florescent lights illuminating a tile floor and a large metal table. Buckets and sponges are on one side near a big metal sink, the kind you see in the back end of kitchens.
On the table is a long wooden board, and on the board is Sarah in her hospital gown.
Sarah doesn’t look dead. She looks old. I cant imagine she was younger than 80, and maybe that’s why it’s easier for me to imagine she’s just asleep. Her hair managers to still be nicer than mine.
We wash our hands before putting on paper aprons and latex gloves, because thousands of years of tradition doesn’t mean we toss germ theory out the window. I don’t know what she died of, besides chronology. My mother passes out printouts of prayers and we say the first one together, addressing it in honor of Sarah bat…bat whoever she was the daughter of, which I also deeply apologize for forgetting.
I’ve been saying the same roster of prayers in synagogue for over a decade, internalized to the point that I sometimes sing them in the shower, but my tongue stumbles over this new one. At that time, there’d never been a death in my family that I was old enough to care about. The worst we’d ever had was the loss of a hamster, and nobody really recites Yizkor for a hamster.
Martha takes out a pair of scissors and cuts off the hospital gown, and then we are standing in a cold gleaming room with a naked dead person.
I was warned about this, but it doesn’t make the situation any less awkward. We say the next prayer, again unfamiliar to me. I busy myself with distributing paper towels because I can’t figure out where to put my eyes. Bare guts and muscle are fine, but when there’s skin on top of it I feel uncomfortable. I picture myself, Chanah bat Tuviah v’Lvana, naked and unresponsive while I’m being worked over by a quartet of strangers, and the part where I don’t have my pants on is more unnerving than the part where I’m dead.
We start our washing at her head and move down from there. Where there are band-aids stuck to thinning skin we remove them and tuck them next to her. Sarah’s body was deteriorating long before she died, and when we disturb a scrap or scab that paper towel is also tucked next to her. The custom is to be buried with as much of you as you had when you left, pacemakers and hearing aids included.
At each stage we lift and pour one of the buckets of water down her body, with the water flowing down through grooves in the old wooden board to the sink at the end of the table. The board itself must be almost as old as Sarah, because the synagogue name carved on it, Heska Amuna, is spelled with a CH and they changed it to start with an H decades ago. I wondered how many dead people have been on top of this slab and how they managed to sanitize it between corpses.
“She is pure, she is pure, she is pure,” we recite, the older women with practiced comfort and Ellen and I hurrying to catch up. When my mother accidently drops one of Sarah’s hands she murmurs an apology, nearly laughing. Martha takes on the patter of a hairdresser, speaking to Sarah as she runs a comb through her hair. One of the other chevra kadisha procedures is shemira, sitting with the body from death to burial. Aside from the historical necessity of making sure nobody steals the body, tradition holds that the spirit stays near its previous housing for three days after death. It’s confused, lost, lonely. We say prayers and psalms to comfort it until it finds the will to pass on to the next step.
I’ve never talked to my corpses before. The bird was not told it was a pretty bird as I dipped it in bleach and watched the sinew melt away in patches.
With that conversation going it’s much harder to conceive of Sarah as just an object.
We dry her off and Martha arranges the loose strands of Sarah’s hair next to her ears. My mother delicately unfolds the white linen clothing resting on a nearby table. At Sarah’s age, perhaps she was used to having someone else dress her every morning, to help her with what her body could no longer accomplish.
We start with the bonnet, then the pants, lifting each limb carefully. For the shirt I put her hand through the sleeve and reach in through the opening at the cuff to pull it through.
Something about me is like catnip to empty-nested Jewish old ladies, and I’ve held enough cold bony fingers with drooping skin during Shabbat services that this one feels no different. For the moment when both our hands are out of sight, I have the sudden vision of her hand coming to life to grasp mine. When it doesn’t, I’m almost disappointed.
We do the jacket, then the belt around her thin waist. In the final step, we cover her face with a white cloth and wrap the burial sheet around her body, swaddling her like an infant.
The nice young men in the tasteful suits come in, silent and polite, and lift Sarah from the table into the plain pine box.
Our final recitation isn’t directed to God, but to Sarah. The four of us apologize for any indignity we may have visited upon her during the process, and then pause as if to wait for any possible complaints she may have wished to offer.
As the box is closed, we stream out one by one. The drive home with my mother is quiet. A year later I’ll do the same thing again, for another person who I barely knew and whose name I’ve long forgotten.
I’m still an atheist. I don’t believe in a God, or an afterlife, and while I’m not always successful I do my best not to believe in ghosts. I’m definitely not cured of graverobbing—my prized dog skull and leg bones were later turned into accessories for a Mad Max themed costume party.
I can’t put my finger on what in that room felt so sacred to me.
In Jewish culture, tending to the dead is considered one of the highest mitzvot, good deeds. You are offering favors that the recipient cannot possibly return. Your personal beliefs don’t matter.
It matters that you’re there to wash the grime from her skin when you will be the last person to ever see her face, that you behave as if she still has authority over her own body after she’s no longer there to enforce it, that you show up when there’s no one else left to do it in your place.
I don’t believe in souls that linger before burial. I don’t want to be buried with all my parts if some of them can go to help others. And I still hope that there’s a little quartet of strangers there to see me when I go off.
But I may put it in my will that I get to keep my pants on.
About the artist…
Elliot Besmann identifies as a self-loathing narcissist. Originally from Tennessee, they started doing stand-up storytelling when they realized it meant people would have to quietly listen to them talk for 7-10 minutes without a single interruption. They've gone through two names and three pronoun sets over the course of their career but are too lazy to go back and amend the older ones.
Elliot's work focuses on queer issues, Jewish identity, the inherent folly of conflicting cultural norms, and being a giant nerd. They perform frequently at storytelling shows around Chicago, including the Filet of Solo Storytelling Festival two years in a row and the premiere of 'Am I Man Enough?'.
In their spare time they enjoy cross stitching swear words, dressing up as a supervillain, and trying to remember the third thing on this list.