Life and Death Matters
by Amanda Devons & Nicole Barchilon Frank
And the days of Israel drew near to die, and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him: If now I have found favor in thy eyes, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal with me kindly and truly; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt.” (Genesis 47:29)
The eleventh century commentator Rashi said about this passage: “The kindness which is shown to those who are dead is a true kindness (literally, a kindness of truth) for then one does not look forward to the payment of recompense.”
In 1999, around three years ago, in Eureka the Humboldt Hevra Kadisha was formed. Chevra or Hevra Kadisha means “Sacred Society.” It is more commonly translated as “Jewish Burial Society.” For more than 2000 years, as Jewish communities formed throughout the world, a Hevra Kadisha was one of the first groups to be organized in order to attend to the preparation and burial of the deceased in accordance with Jewish law. Our Humboldt Hevra Kadisha, meets regularly to discuss the work we’ve been doing, learn more about ritual, tradition, and practices, and to find out what needs we have. At our last meeting, we had in attendance both men and women. This was very gratifying because the ritual of tahara is done by men for males and by women for females.
Some of us discussed our feelings about our recent experiences doing tahara. Although it was agreed upon that this is not an easy task, physically or mentally, members of our group said it was one of the deepest spiritually meaningful things we had participated in. Responses from our group have been very positive. People feel they have “been transported to other realms,” “gone to the gates of death and found life,” “received extraordinary spiritual strength” “departed from the mundane and touched the holy!” The work deepens our understanding of life and makes us better able to truly live our lives.
It is difficult to find time in our busy lives to stop and do this work. Often, we have to be available in the middle of the afternoon. Returning to work feels very bizarre! We have also found that having some quiet meditative time together as a group before we begin is very important. Traditionally, men and women do mikva (ritual immersion in living waters), before re-entering their daily lives. Even if we can’t do everything the best way, we all know we are striving to be of service to the person who has passed away. The deceased is referred to as the met (for a man) or meta (for a woman) and by their name (Hebrew name when possible).
Some Terms and Definitions:
Shemira–watching over the body. The body is normally covered with a sheet or blanket upon death. We sit Shemira until the met has tahara and is laid to rest in a closed casket. We also sit shemira with their casket until the person is buried. This practice of maintaining a vigil so that the deceased’s body is never left alone is designed to comfort the neshama (soul) before it ascends to heaven. Selected Tehillim (psalms) are read aloud in either English or Hebrew.
Tahara—the preparation of a deceased’s body involving washing and dressing, by someone of the same gender, accompanied by prayers seeking forgiveness from the deceased and asking for eternal peace. After washing the met is dressed in a shroud of simple pure white linen or cotton, and then wrapped in a sheet called a sovev for burial.
Gemilut Hasadim—support services for the mourner and his or her family. This includes making funeral arrangements, holding a graveside service, and bringing the necessary siddurim to read prayers and shovels to cover the simple wood coffin with earth. Other services include bringing food to the house of mourning, finding a minyan (group of ten Jewish folks) to say Kaddish, and attend to the mourner who is sitting shiva. This is not the traditional purview of the Hevra Kadisha, but due to the small size of our community, we often find ourselves doing this task as well.
Chesed shel emes—the ultimate good deed, since those who perform the deed can never be repaid for their kindness. The members of the Hevra Kadisha are often called upon to serve with little or no notice, since they must spring into action promptly upon death.
Some ways you can get involved:
Even though a person may not have been active Jewishly in their life, they or their families might desire a Jewish burial. If you know anyone not affiliated, and feel comfortable discussing the matter, let them know about the beautiful practices of our tradition. Perhaps you can show them this article.
We need 100% white or off-white cotton or linen material for burial and or sheets to wrap the met in. If you have any white all-cotton sheets, please contact Nicole to donate. (We don’t actually need folks all over the internet to send us sheets!)
Because our services are often needed with very little notice, extra volunteers to help with any part of the process are very welcome, especially the Gemilut Hasadim. We have had great help from many of you.
Our Hevra Kadisha has a form that we are currently working on improving. This form looks at wishes concerning burial, funeral services, internment, memorials, etc. It is very important, within our tradition, to think about end–of–life issues. They often arrive suddenly, as we have painfully been learning of late. Communicating our wishes prior to emergencies makes everything easier for those we love and who love us. Start thinking now about what you want for yourself and those you love. We will be sending you a form to help with this process in the coming year.
~ From the Temple Beth El, Eureka California Newsletter