Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Tahara: Dignity for a Corpse

Sunday June 9, 2013

Tahara: Dignity for a Corpse

In preparation for my role as Chief Rabbi, one of the tasks I undertook was that of performing a Tahara, the ritual cleansing of the recently deceased. Many years ago, when I lived in the US, I was volunteered to join the local Hevrah Kadisha, the organization that deals with the cleansing and burial of the dead as per Jewish tradition. To remind myself of the process and the nuances I participated in a Tahara in my community of Gush Etzion in Israel. Today I participated in a Tahara in Montevideo with a most professional team. Due to the personal nature of the Tahara process I delayed sharing the Gush Etzion experience so there would not be any identification of who I was describing.

Below is what I wrote that day (warning: queasy people should not read today’s post):

I didn’t want to know its name. There was a certain protection in anonymity. It wasn’t a human after all. It was the remaining husk of a once mortal body now devoid of any life. I was told after the fact that this was a harder Tahara than usual.

I was grateful for the thin separation the gloves and plastic smock provided. I gagged on the smell of the body and had to consciously hold myself back from vomiting from the reek.

The body-bag containing the corpse was still cold from the refrigeration unit that had kept the decay at bay for three days. I knew it would be trouble from the misshapen contour of the bag. The trouble was confirmed when we opened the bag. The elderly man must have died either on a wheelchair or curled in a near-fetal position and left that way. The rigor mortis had frozen his limbs in a bent position and his hands clutched in a true death grip.

He must have been in tremendous pain. There were bed sores on his body that were black remains of dead flesh that still oozed pus.

Then I watched a transformation that was close to miraculous. First we removed the various bandages off his body hiding old dirty blood that caked over his skin. Then we scrubbed him clean from head to toe. The other attendant lifted the man’s head tenderly as we washed his face. It was almost like washing a newborn. The dead dry face of the deceased seemed to take on some vibrancy as it was washed clean and rinsed. Throughout the process we attempted to straighten out the stiff hands and legs. We massaged the fingers and stretched the knees. We met with limited success, but he left us straighter than when he arrived.

Two attendants, one on the right and the other on the left, each with a ladle of water poured the water over the deceased’s hands three times, in an all too human experience. They did the same to his feet. Then gallons of water were poured liberally over the entire body. For a moment he was a man again, enjoying a cleansing bath.

We dried the body gently and covered up the open wounds. We then started the process of dressing the body. I don’t know the source of all the customs, and I know different communities have different traditions, but in this case there were multiple simple white garments for the dead. The head is covered. Then there is a type of underwear, followed by pants with no exit for the feet. There’s a shirt that we place as we carefully lift the head and then a fuller gown. Finally, the entire body is wrapped in white linen and the linen is tied to the body securely.

Throughout the process, my relationship to the body changed. It went from outright physical disgust of the human remains, contorted, wounded, oozing and reeking to a respect of the cleaner version of the human body, the body that housed an eternal soul for a lifetime. The human visage seemed to return to his face and was no longer a discarded husk. The dirt, grime and blood of death, suffering and disease were replaced by the cleansed skin of a newborn. The disgusting, filthy bandages of the end of his life were replaced with the pristine white garments of dignity and accompaniment to the next life.

Here lay a man transformed even in death. This was no longer a body discarded. It was a body given tenderness, honor and sanctity in its last moments.

When we finished the Tahara I looked for the name tag. After all he is a man. He has a name.

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