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Six Feet Under

Sally BerkovicFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

‘I will lie on a cold metal table…’ If you’ve ever wondered what the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society) will do with your body when you die as per Jewish customs, this talk is for you.  

This talk

This talk intersperses reflections on the early deaths of my parents and my own life as a ‘motherless mother’ with the physical rituals undertaken by the Chevra Kadisha as my dead body will be prepared for my burial, six feet under.

I was born in Australia, and lived in Jerusalem and New York before romance brought me to London in 1993. I trained as a social worker at Melbourne University and worked in that field for over 10 years. Then I developed a freelance writing career through my travels, focussing on social issues and contemporary Jewish life.  My book, Under My Hat, short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly prize, reflects on raising my daughters while straddling the tensions between Orthodoxy and modernity as it impacts on women. Currently, I am the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, a grant-making body focussed on Jewish scholarship, heritage and enhancing Jewish life throughout Europe.

I will lie on a cold metal table. A sheet will cover my still, naked body. It’s a body that no-one, other than my husband, has ever seen before. It will be very quiet in the room. The holy women of the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society, will wash their hands, say a special blessing and put on two sets of latex gloves. No words, other than brief instructions, will be said. And so, will begin, the preparations for my burial.

I think about death a lot. I think about death when I wake up in the morning – for I am very grateful to have come through the night unscathed, and for this, I say the traditional phrase that starts with the words, Modah Ani Lefancha offering gratitude for waking up. Whether the day waiting for me is exciting or exhausting, I am still grateful that the day is to be had. That is of course, as long as I make it to the end of the day. My day has been ruined twice before. The first time was over 30 years ago , when the day started with nothing awry that hinted at the impending calamity. However, the day ended with a dead mother. Ten years later, the same thing happened – I woke up to a beautiful warm summer’s day, but the day ended in winter with the cold body of my dead father.

I think about death a lot because I think about life a lot. At least, I think about my life, and its purpose. The Talmud suggests that the world was created for my sake. And there is a mission in this world that only I am able to accomplish. Consequently, my existence is of crucial importance, not just for myself but for all of mankind but what if I can’t work out what this mission is and what if the smile I gave the lonely woman at breakfast this morning ,was in fact my mission. Well then, I guess my hours are numbered.

A megalomaniac’s justification for all sorts of manipulative schemes – if I wasn’t such a humble person, I could really let this go to my head. But the thought still troubles me – how could it be that the world hangs in the balance according to the pre-ordained task that I must fulfil. What if I can’t work out what that task is? And if the smile I gave the lonely person at breakfast this morning was my task, well then I guess my hours left are numbered. A coffin sits in the room. It will be filled with some sawdust. A couple of small padded cotton bags will be placed in the coffin as a pillow for my weary head that will sleep for a very long time. They don’t know I get a sore neck from pillows. A label will be placed on the coffin with my name. Sarah Bat Eliyahu. Sarah, named after my father’s mother who was murdered at Auschwitz. My daughter is named Elisheva after my father, Eliyahu ben Shmuel. And I wonder, will my daughters name their children after me?

When my grandparents died in the fires of Auschwitz, there was no chevra Kadisha to tend to their deaths. There’s no cemetery or polished tombstone to visit on their yahrzeit, the annual anniversary of their death. The Nazis not only took away life, but they also took away death and the opportunity to grieve. My father never knew the actual dates of his parents death, that moment they were thrown into the furnace, but, he chose Shavuout, the festival that celebrates the receiving of the Torah, as his yahrzeit date. Maybe he chose it because the Torah is the Tree of Life, and life it inextricably connected to death. It is not the fear of death, writes Abraham Joshua Heschel, rather it is the fear of life. Yes, the fear of life – the fear of not taking every opportunity to celebrate life and make it meaningful. I envy those who do not fear life, those who know how to live well,

I envy those who know how to enjoy their holidays, those who can dance with wild abandon at a wedding. I envy people who see the good in the world. I might think that they are naïve and a little simple – but nevertheless I envy them, for they are not afraid of life.

The women will heave my body onto my right side and shower me with water. Then they will heave my body onto my left side and repeat the procedure. One woman will stand on my right side and clean the nails on my right hand and foot. Another woman will stand on my left side and clean the nails on my left hand and foot. One more will stand by my head and gently comb my exposed hair. Any stray strands of hair will be collected and put in the coffin. A vat of rainwater is perched on a strange contraption above the metal table. Now that I have been physically cleaned with tapwater, I will be ritually cleaned with the rainwater, the same sort of water that filled the mikvah I used every month during my marriage, except for when I was pregnant and after menopause. One woman will stand at my head. She will release a lever that will tip the water onto my head and then she will slowly walk the length of my body ensuring that the rainwater spills out of the vat and covers all my body. A short prayer will be said, closing with the words Taharah, Taharah, Taharah. Pure Pure Pure.

My life is filled with many pure and good things. I have an uxurious husband (that’s a pretentious word for a husband who adores his wife), three kind and thoughtful daughters, a small group of great friends and a fantastic job. I don’t have great material demands, but I do want more time. I don’t mean the time we all want – another hour in the day to finish off a work project, a few more minutes to relax in the bath, a weekend away with some friends to recharge one’s batteries. I mean serious time the time that was stolen from my parents before they had the time to enjoy the pleasures of grown children, time that will let me babysit for my grandchildren and maybe even help them choose a wedding dress.

They will start to dress me in the tachrichim – simple white shrouds with no buttons, zippers or fasteners. In Talmudic times, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel observed that the custom of dressing the deceased in expensive clothing put such a terrible burden on the relatives of the deceased, that they would abandon the body. Therefore he initiated the use of these shrouds so that rich and poor would be dressed the same. The woman on my right side will put my right leg through the right trouser pant, and then the woman on the left will put my left leg through the left trouser pant. And for the first time in years, I’ll be an Orthodox woman wearing a pair of trousers.

Whatever we are wearing there is no such thing as a stereotypical Orthodox woman and I have been inspired by three of them who have changed the course of Jewish history because they have decided to challenge rabbinic power and the prevailing rabbinic attitudes to certain social problems. The first is Sarah Schenirer who fought for Jewish girls to have a Jewish education –she started with one class in Krakow in 1918 and when she died in 1935, more than 200 Beis Yaakov schools were teaching approximately 35,000 girls. The second is Henrietta Szold known mainly for her work in Youth Aliyah and supporting Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Less well-known is that she was a serious scholar who was allowed to sit in the back of the classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York on the condition that she made no demands to receive rabbinical ordination. The third is Bertha Pappenheim, my personal favourite, also known as Anna O, the famous patient described by Freud who helped him conceive the ‘talking cure’ which eventually morphed into psycho-analysis. In the early 1900s she challenged the rabbis to deal with the rampant problem of the trafficking of poor Jewish women from Eastern Europe into prostitution in cities including London, New York and Buenos Aires, where there is even a separate Jewish cemetery just for the prostitutes and their Jewish pimps. These women were incredible, brave and independent. Sarah Schenirer was married for a very brief time, but otherwise, these women did not have husbands or children. Could they have achieved what they did with children? It’s impossible to know, but I doubt it. When I read obituaries of women who have achieved great things, I always scan to the last paragraph to see if they had children. And I always feel a lot better if they had no children simply because it allows me to blame my own children from my lack of greatness. The legacy of Sarah Schenier, Henrietta Szold and Bertha Pappenheim was so profound and yet, there are no descendants to recount their glory, pass on their story to future generations. There is no-one to ask – tell us a little about your great-grandma. But I’m doing my little bit to remember them – Bertha is the password to my computer and Henrietta and Sarah are passwords to various email accounts. Yes, in this digital age, I am revolutionising Judaism with my Passwords to Posterity Jewish identity programme.

A mask with two thick strings attached will be placed on my face and the strings will be wound behind my ears and then brought together in a bow under my neck to hold it in place. A bonnet will be placed on my head, and tied securely into place with a little twist. Some grains of earth from the Holy Land will be sprinkled on my eyes. A shawl will be placed around my shoulders and the ends of it will come together near my breastbone. Near my breasts that fed my children many years ago.

The children, whom I adore, the children whom I even enjoy, the children whom others have defined as my legacy as if giving birth is justification alone for my entire existence. Well it’s just not enough for me. I want to leave a legacy that is way beyond these children – I want to know that I have done the most I could in this world that’s because despite my very dark fear of the world I still carry embers of naivety from youth, when, much to the horror of my parents I gave up an offer to study law at university to study social work instead, because, oh, I am very embarrassed to admit it, I wanted to help people.

I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking – ‘who does this woman think she is?’ Why does she think she’s so important, that she, some frumpy housewife from Golders Green has to leave a legacy?’ Well, I’ve got a different question. What makes you think you’re not important? What makes each one of you think you don’t have a responsibility to do something extraordinary with your lives?

An apron-like piece of clothing will be placed around my stomach. The long straps will be taken behind my back and brought together again at the front. They will make a tight knot with the straps near my belly button. They will twist the knot 3 times and say aleph, bet, gimmel. Then they will start to make the 3 pronged Hebrew letter called shin with the straps. Shin for Shaddai, a name of God. God will be with me, like an umbilical cord attached to the world-to-come. I am ready, and it is time to be placed in the coffin. The coffin is aligned with the metal table. On the count of 3, the women lift my body slightly and glide it in the coffin. A sprinkling of earth from Israel is placed on my hands, my feet and heart. The women will ask out loud for my forgiveness in case they upset me during the purification process or dressing me in the shrouds. And finally, they will put the lid on the coffin.

It’s time. The mourners start to arrive. I don’t expect a large crowd. I hope my husband will have predeceased me because I can’t bear the thought of him grieving for me. I pray my daughters will have their own families and friends around them for support. The Rabbi will invoke the prayers and then deliver the eulogy – a eulogy I will have written because I know exactly what I want said. Everyone will walk slowly towards the gravesite, but I will have the advantage of lying down. Spades rest next to the mounds of dirt on either side of the grave. I am carefully placed in the ground, six feet under. My children shovel dirt onto the coffin, filling up the pit. There are some tears and quiet mournful sobs. My daughters look at each other and nod in agreement. They know that I expect this much, and they start to say aloud –

Yitgadal Veitkadesh Shmay Rabba.

And at the end, the only answer is Amen.

Thank you

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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