Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Last night I got a call from Rebbetzin Plony - "Can you do a tahara tonight?" "You bet," I said, without hesitation. 15 minutes later, I was in the car with the other members of the chevra, on my way to the funeral home. It was all weird from there.
Firstly, there were cops EVERYWHERE. Blocking neighborhood roads on both ends. That was unusual. Then, right as we arrived at the funeral home, I noticed it was surrounded by churches. Kind of metaphorical, I decided upon reflection. Then, when we got in, we met "the phone squad." These are college girls who spend the night in the funeral home, taking late night phone calls from distraught families. They were watching the movie "Mommy Dearest" (it's basically about this kid who grew up with an abusive, psycho-mom). That was VERY disturbing.
It was the actual time spent doing the tahara that weirded me out. Normally, I am unruffled by this mitzvah. It's one of the holiest things I've ever done, and I feel honored to do it. Last night, however, everything seemed strange and macabre. Firstly, the woman we were preparing was only 11 years older than my mother. I noticed the tag on her ankle with her date of birth; 1939. She also had a name in common with one of my kids. Then I looked in the corner, and noticed the laundry detergent was the same one we had at home - Costco brand "institutional size" powder. I found that disconcerting. Then I noticed the dry erase board. Names of the deceased and what their "plans" were. 3 holy Jewish names under the heading "Cremation" - bad news for the Jews. One guy's note read; "shave beard, leave mustache." Then I noticed the sign for casket close-outs. Things were getting weirder by the minute.
The actual tahara was very quick and relatively easy. All of us had done this job before, and we work well together as a team. The woman was also in good condition, making our job easier. But when it was time to immerse her, I got whacked by a piece of the machine. There's a pulley contraption that helps lift and lower the body into the mikvah, and it has a remote control. Somehow, the remote came unhinged. It went flying through the air, pausing only when it reached its destination: my arm. I felt like G-d was giving me a zetz: "Wake up, Maven! This is not all about you!"
The saddest part of the night was seeing another body in the room. For whatever reason, the people who brought this person in didn't completely cover him. His legs and shoes were sticking out. Tan, muscular legs, with brown curly hair, and very hip shoes. This was not an old person. He didn't even seem dead, looking at his legs. Maybe he was just sleeping under there. That made me feel very deflated. I kept glancing at his cool shoes.
On my way out, I gave the phone squad girls my number. They were still watching their movie. "Come for shabbos sometime," I said. "They're a very nice family," one of the chevra ladies piped in. "I've eaten by them before."
When I got home, I sat down with a book and ate leftovers from dinner. I just wanted to reconnect to life and to relax. I probably should have been saying tehillim.