Rochel Berman recently had a close encounter with death. In fact, it now happens so often, you might say that death has totally transformed her life.
“On May 29, 1985, shortly before midnight, I had my inaugural experience with death; for the first time in my life, I saw the face of a dead person. The deceased was my father, and within twelve hours I was standing at his graveside asking myself, ‘Whatever happened to his body from the time he was removed from my sight to this moment of interment? Where did they take him and what did they do to him?’
So begins the introduction to Dignity Beyond Death, the Jewish Preparation for Burial (Urim Publishers) by Rochel Berman.
Like most Jews, Berman grew up with a dim awareness that there existed a group of people who were responsible for preparing the deceased for burial, but had no real knowledge of who or what was involved. “I thought of them as a group of asexual gnomes who worked in the dark and rarely appeared in public,” she remembers. Thinking about them during her beloved father’s funeral only intensified her mourning.
Shortly thereafter, Berman received a telephone call that was to forever change her life.
“The Chevra Kadisha in our Westchester, New York synagogue put out a call for additional women volunteers to perform Tahara,” she says, “And I thought this was my chance to replace ignorance and discomfort with understanding and appreciation.”
Berman became a member of the Chevra and was trained in the Tahara purification procedure. “While I was filled with anxiety and trepidation before my first Tahara,” she says, “I found it to be profoundly rewarding. Tahara makes calm and order out of the chaos that is death.”
Jewish law specifies the steps to be taken in preparing a Jew for his or her final journey in this world. The process requires washing, purifying and dressing the deceased in the simple white linen shrouds (Tachrichim) that have been hand-sewn by pious women. Sand from the holy land of Israel is sprinkled in the plain pine casket and shards of pottery are placed upon the eyes and mouth. The overriding principal is sensitivity and respect for the body that housed the soul of the deceased.
“Before we even begin the process,” says Berman, “We have to ask forgiveness from the deceased for anything disrespectful that we may inadvertently do. We call the deceased by their Hebrew name, and I always feel that we are somehow atoning for the degradations of the Holocaust where Jews were mere numbers and death with dignity was denied them.”
Today, it’s estimated that only fifteen to twenty percent of Jewish deaths are accompanied by Tahara. Upon hearing this dismal statistic, Rochel and her husband George Berman, a member of the men’s Chevra, were motivated to speak out. Rochel was interviewed by PBS as part of a video documentary on Tahara and she utilizes the film in her talks and lectures.
Berman’s book is a series of interviews with the men and women who perform Tahara in cities across the U.S. and Canada. They are a disparate group of people who are doctors, lawyers, rabbis, teachers, engineers, nurses, business people and homemakers in their everyday lives. What connects them all is a sense of purpose that made them eager to share their experiences with Berman. Most spoke candidly about their initial fears and ultimate fulfillment.
“In my entire life, I don’t think I’ve done anything more worthwhile than serve on the Chevra Kadisha” says Dr. Saul Kahn, a retired dentist, now residing in Boca Raton, Florida.
Berman chronicles the thoughts of a young woman who says that Tahara has changed her outlook on life. “I don’t look at death as a punishment, I view it as moving on to a better place. After every Tahara, I evaluate whether or not I am living my life to the fullest.”
“Being available for a Tahara will inevitably mean a change in one’s daily schedule as every call requires an immediate response” says Berman, but she has found that “volunteers are reluctant to turn down a call and will make many sacrifices to attend. As my husband tells his trainees, ‘you will always have something else to do, but you will never have anything better to do.’
Dignity Beyond Death
The Jewish Preparation for Burial
Book reviewed by: Fay Kranz Greene
(Fay Kranz is the former editor of the Virginia Jewish News. She currently lives in Boca Raton, Florida with her Husband, Joel)