Burial-society volunteers find spiritual elevation in task

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In Judaism, the body is considered holy — even after death. And the mitzvah of taharah, preburial purification, is imbued with a spiritual dimension.

"We consider that that person had holiness and the soul is there and the body's there and the body's asleep," said Ruth Novice, who volunteers for the Chevra Kadisha of the South Bay, a Jewish burial society.

"Now we have to make that body and that neshama (soul) as comfortable as possible. They will present themselves to HaShem in the next world," she said, using one of the names for God.

In preparing a body for Jewish burial, the volunteers lovingly wash it, dry it and clothe it. Outsiders may consider the task unpleasant. But "it's a great honor to do it," said Novice, a 70-year-old San Jose resident who first performed the ritual of taharah 30 years ago when she lived in New York state.

For Andrew Scharlach of Alamo, participating in taharah is a way of going "where most people, for whatever reason, don't go, providing care in a way that most people are unable to do. Death is a reality in our lives and yet one that we avoid and that we have so little contact with."

Scharlach began volunteering with Sinai Memorial Chapel's chevra kadishah after taking a course on Jewish views of death and dying at Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, where he is a member. A 47-year-old professor of social welfare at U.C. Berkeley, he also teaches a university course on death and dying.

"I have an intellectual as well as personal and spiritual interest in what happens when we die. I don't in any way view what I do with taharah as a way of gathering material or information for class, and yet I think it helps sensitize me more to the reality of death."

Scharlach said death is more familiar now, less strange, since he began participating in taharah.

"It helps remind me how short life is and how we all share this common condition called mortality."

Because the body is holy, those who perform the ritual of taharah may describe a sense of awe.

The body "held that which made us human and holy," Novice said. "It has a sanctity to it. When we do a taharah and we put them in the casket you feel as if the neshama has been around. It's really quite powerful."

Typically, three people attend the body; men work on men, women on women. They come dressed nicely "out of respect for the meis," Novice explained, using the Yiddish word for body.

First, those attending the body wash their own hands. They uncover the body, wash it and clean the nails. Then they wash their hands again.

"Everything that we do is for respect for the meis. Whatever we do, we address them by name."

They then pour water over the body, a ritual cleansing.

"Before you go to see your king or queen or president, you take a shower and put on good clothes," she explained.

The body is dried and dressed in a white shroud. Males are given a yarmulke and wrapped in a tallit with the tzitzit, ritual fringes, cut off.

"They're all dressed the same," Novice said. "We all present ourselves the same, rich and poor."

Before and after completing their tasks, the participants ask forgiveness from the person who died "for anything that was left incomplete or wasn't done perfectly."

Though blessings are said throughout the process, it is mostly done in silence.

Finally, the body is wrapped in a linen cloth, dirt from Israel is placed in the coffin, and final prayers are recited.

For Novice, there is a mystical element to taharah, though she said she's not seeking what she calls a "third-dimension spirituality."

"There is such a spiritual elevation," she said. "You come in there and you see a young person — or maybe they've gone through a lot of pain and it shows on their faces. It's almost like there's this peace on their face."