The Final Gift by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

I’m getting old. I feel great and I have a truly amazing life but the comforting layer of family, friends and members of my community who are older than me is thinning.  That safe bubble that kept me young because they were the old ones is dwindling. Honestly, it’s a little unsettling. When I look at the pictures from my children’s b’nei mitzvah it becomes a roll call of everyone who has passed away. It’s that mix of happy memories and painful reminders of how precious life is and the eventuality of my own death.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my own death but my thoughts about death and the rituals involved have been shaped by my participation in Temple Beth El’s Chevra Kadisha. A Chevra Kadisha is literally defined as a “holy society” and is an organization of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition. But to those who have chosen to volunteer to be a member of this group it is much more. It is the chance to show respect and love for a member of our community who will never be able to repay the kindness.

Preparing someone for burial involves washing, ritually purifying and dressing the body for burial while reciting prayers and texts connected to the ritual. It is not an easy task but for me it is deeply moving and meaningful and I am left with a tremendous sense of calm, inner peace and an awareness that I do not need to fear death.  I have never prepared a body that didn’t look peaceful and pain free regardless of age or the circumstances surrounding their passing.  I know this feeling is shared by the other members of the group because when we are finished we take time to process the rituals we have just performed and to check in with each other. I hear over and over how grateful the members are for the opportunity to serve and how powerfully the experience has impacted their lives.

Temple Beth El is planning a Chevra Kadisha training session for anyone who would like more information or may be considering joining the group.  It will be an opportunity to ask questions, to share experiences and to connect to current members. Dates and times will be posted soon but if you are interested, please contact me.

I wish I could adequately express my gratitude to our congregants who serve on our Chevra Kadisha. It is truly holy work. It is a gift you give our community.  It is a gift to the families who are grieving for their loved one.  It is a gift to those who pass away.  It is the final gift.