Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Thinking About Caring for Dead People

By Susan Esther Barnes

This Fall our synagogue is planning to have a group of people learn how to do taharah, the ritual washing of people’s remains after they die. This mitzvah is considered to be one of the most holy, because the people who perform this task know the person on whom they perform it has no way to thank or reward them.

I looked it up online, and found the washing is done in a particular order, from the head, down the right side, and then the left. All sorts of details are spelled out, including what to do if there is any bleeding, the position of the person being washed, and the privacy of the room in which the washing is done.

Just reading about the procedure makes me nervous. It’s something I’d like to be able to do, but I’ve never been in a room with a dead person, and I don’t know how I’d react to it. I suspect that feinting at the feet of the person to be washed would be bad form. Especially since the instructions clearly state there should be no interruptions during the washing.

I’m not sure why I feel so anxious about it. I suppose being in the room with a dead person makes one think about one’s own mortality, but it’s not like I don’t do that on a regular basis. Since I’m severely allergic to fish, I tend to think about how quick and easy it would be to kill me every time someone mentions sushi or I see tuna salad at the deli counter.

There’s something more primal to it than the intellectual contemplation of death. The discomfort must be a deeply ingrained survival mechanism. In a world before disinfectants, refrigeration and antibiotics, I’m sure that being around a dead person was a pretty good way to catch your death of something. People who avoided dead people probably lived longer, and people who didn’t probably got weeded out of the gene pool over time.

I would like to think I could just go into a room with a dead person, take a deep breath, focus on the facts (this person is dead, I’m not, they’re not contagious, therefore there is no danger), and get on with the taharah. I have a terrible track record when trying to predict how I will react in a new situation, so it’s possible I’d be able to do this with no problem, but I doubt it.

Like any irrational fear (I was going to say phobia, but I think that’s a little strong in my case), I suspect these feelings can be overcome by a gradual introduction to the object of the fear. So it seems to me the safer path would be to act first as a shomeret (a guard) for the dead first. A dead person is not to be left alone between death and burial, so a shomeret (or shomer for a male) watches over the dead person, traditionally reading Psalms, but not touching the person. If I can do that without freaking out, then I’d be more confident about my ability to take it to the next level.

To a large extent I want to skip the shomeret part. I don’t like to give into irrational fear, and I don’t want to miss the first class just because I’m afraid of what might or might not happen. Frankly, I’m hoping there will turn out to be a requirement that everyone who doesn’t already have experience being around dead people has to be a shomer or shomeret before they learn taharah. That way I could ease into it without feeling like I’m wimping out.

At any rate, although I believe when someone’s dead they’re gone (I hope to whatever comes next), and I don’t think they hang around their dead body, I’m still enamored with the idea that we treat the dead with respect by guarding the remains and carefully preparing them for burial even though we don’t believe in open casket funerals. And I like the idea that it’s close family members, not a stranger, who throws the first handfuls of dirt on the coffin after it’s lowered into the grave. I don’t know why this is important to me, but it is, and I hope I’ll be able to keep myself together enough when the time comes to be able to participate in the tradition.


  1. Most of us cope with challenges G-d gives us. This is a mitzvah. No, I've never had the privilege.

  2. Thank you for the encouragement!

  3. this was a really interesting, honest post susan. it gave me some pause, for sure! i love the way you're addressing your apprehensions; i would think that many wouldn't. i also really adore your last paragraph-- the casket, the earth, the close family members. our people know how to show respect, don;t they? thanks for sharing so much of your heart-and-soul in this one!

  4. Minnesota Mamaleh -

    Thank you for the kind words. I think our rituals around death are some of the best. It's not all easy, but they're certainly worthwhile.

  5. I found my way here via Havel Havelim, and wanted to say that for what it's worth, I've found the experience of being on my synagogue's chevra kadisha, and doing taharah, to be incredibly powerful.

    Some years ago I wrote a long post about my first time doing that work, which you can read if you're interested:

    Shabbat Shalom!

  6. Rachel -

    Thank you so much for the link to your beautiful piece about taharah. Reading it was very helpful and moving to me. I plan to pass on the link to others who are thinking of helping us to form our chevra kadisha.

  7. Interesting.

    As a nurse, the being around dead bodies doesn't bother me as much as the actual washing which in many ways I would assume is even harder than washing people who are ill.