Washing the Dead in Pittsburgh

Our burial practices offer more than a way of dealing with the dead; they are antifascism in action.

Jordana Rosenfeld
October 24, 2019
Image: nafterphoto via Shutterstock

I NEVER THOUGHT that I would be ritually washing and dressing dead Jewish people in the funeral home across from the Giant Eagle on Centre Avenue, on Pittsburgh’s East End. That it would become commonplace for me to gently clean the bodies of elderly women with warm washcloths—lifting the dirt from underneath their fingernails and combing their hair. That I would become conversant in the best practices for putting clothes on corpses. I never imagined that I would experience genuine love for these newly departed Jews whom I’d never met. And also for the living Jews who volunteer, like me, to spend their mornings in a cold windowless room with seafoam green walls and white tile, performing the centuries-old Jewish ritual of taharah

There are more of us than ever before. Pittsburgh’s independent, nondenominational Jewish burial society, the New Community Chevra Kadisha (NCCK), doubled in size in the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Tree of Life on October 27th, 2018. I am one of those who joined the chevra after last year’s shooting, seeking to displace images of violent Jewish death. I didn’t know at the time that Jerry Rabinowitz z”l, who died in the shooting, and Dan Leger, who survived it, had been founding members of NCCK, but it soon felt meaningful that this was the space that many of us instinctively sought out in response to white nationalist violence. Over the past year I’ve come to see care work and forms of mutual aid like burying the dead as deeply political activities, central to American Jewish resistance to fascism. 

When a Jewish person dies in Pittsburgh, we are summoned to Ralph Schugar Chapel, the city’s only Jewish funeral home. The back of the chapel resembles a large garage; its eastern wall rolls open to allow hearses to back up to an industrial cooler like the ones at the bakery where I used to bake sourdough bread. Around the corner from the cooler is the preparation room—cold, stuffy, and small—where we find the meitah, the deceased, lying on one of two tables that look like porcelain but probably aren’t, her whole body wrapped in a sheet.

We gather outside the preparation room to greet each other and read the meitah’s obituary. Often, one or more of us has a personal connection to the meitah or her family, which we momentarily acknowledge. We ask the meitah for forgiveness if we “fail to act according to [her] honor, even though we act according to our custom.” We enter the prep room and remove the sheet around the meitah

The primary responsibility of NCCK members is to perform the ritual of taharah. A Hebrew word, taharah describes a state of ritual purity. There is little halacha, or legal guidance, on performing the ritual, so the process varies from place to place, but everyone agrees it requires a lot of water. Before my first taharah, I felt most anxious about looking at the face of the dead. I worried I would find some remnant of my mother, the only person whose death I’ve witnessed; it was my first time in the chapel since her funeral 12 years ago. But in fact what I found most arresting in the face of my first meitah, and in the others’ since, was its slackness. One rarely sees a human face making no effort to form any sort of expression. I thought of how often I hide behind my facial expressions, and I was struck both by the profound intimacy of my relation to the meitah in this moment and the fact that she was incapable of consenting to it. 

We place a handkerchief over the meitah’s face, as she is nireh v’eyno ro’eh, one who can be seen but who cannot see. We cut off her hospital gown and dunk washcloths in buckets of warm water at our feet. We drape her in a clean sheet, only uncovering parts of her body in order to wash them. We comb her hair, taking care to collect any strays in a linen pouch that will be buried along with her. We remove nail polish, we clean up excess bodily secretions, we wipe off any shmutz left behind by medical tape. We turn the meitah on her side to wash her back—two people steady her by holding her body close, while someone else cradles her head in their hands. As we finish the washing, we recite a line from Song of Songs: “Kulakh yafah rayati umum ein bakh.” “You are beautiful, my beloved friend, and there is no flaw in you.” 

A warm affection blooms in my chest when we address the meitah as a beautiful, beloved friend, touching her body with the utmost care in a collective affirmation of her value. I wish I could say I begin each taharah with love in my heart for the meitah. I arrive with little knowledge of her physical condition—whether she will have bags and tubes of bodily fluids still attached to her, whether she will have open sores or a strong unpleasant smell. The taharah calls me into an immediate physical intimacy, which forces confrontation with my learned aversion to aging, sickness, and death. The performance of the ritual challenges what I have been taught to find beautiful and valuable, based on the corporeal politics of fascism and white supremacy that dictate a hierarchy of bodies. 

As I wash the meitah, it is rarely far from my mind that in her old age and perhaps her sickness, she is the undesirable body; that we, in our Jewishness, are the undesirable bodies. Often, as I clean and consider her, I think of the violence inflicted on the bodies deemed undesirable. I remember the 11 Jews murdered last year in the building where I used to attend preschool. I remember Antwon Rose II, who was shot and killed by a police officer near Pittsburgh just months before the shooting at Tree of Life. I think about Elisha Stanley, a black trans woman, who earlier this fall was found dead in downtown Pittsburgh. The enormity of the world’s grief nearly overwhelms me, if only for a moment. I unfold a clean sheet to cover the meitah; I remind myself that this grief is not my only inheritance and that I am not the only one to inherit it. 

THE CHEVRA KADISHA, meaning “sacred society,” is one of the oldest Jewish mutual aid traditions still around today. K’vod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort), an organization that provides guidance and support to North American chevra kadisha groups, traces Jewish burial societies back to 13th-century Spain. Chevra kadisha customs traveled across Europe with Sephardic Jews fleeing persecution and flourished in Europe over the next centuries, such that the chevra kadisha is most often remembered as an early modern Ashkenazic tradition. 

Historically, in addition to performing taharah and ensuring that the deceased is never left unattended from the moment of death to the moment of burial, the chevra kadisha might also help with sick care before the moment of death, or arrange and execute the funeral process. Its members were not always publicly known; their anonymity manifested the symbolic truth that the entire Jewish community rose to support the mourners among them.

Aspects of those traditions traveled to the US with Jewish immigrants and were once a boldly generative force in American Jewish life. Early chevra kadisha groups in 19th-century New York City spawned comprehensive Jewish grassroots mutual aid groups that often took the form of landsmanshaftn, aid societies for emigrants from the same areas of Central and Eastern Europe. These benevolent societies were more committed to popular participation and preventative community care than other Jewish institutions of that time, emphasizing democratic governance, offering the first opportunities for American Jewish women to create and lead their own community groups, and providing financial support to vulnerable families before their need became overwhelming. Even as these organizations expanded well beyond their origins in the chevra kadisha, the funeral arrangement and financial support they offered grieving families remained a significant draw for members. The values Jewish communities enacted through this approach to death—among them, egalitarianism, radical compassion, togetherness, responsibility, and human dignity—allowed them to survive in a nativist, antisemitic system.

WHILE WE OFTEN REFER to the chevra kadisha’s entire burial preparation process as a taharah, the word specifically refers to the ritual pouring of water. The taharah itself is rather brief. We fill our buckets with cold water and carefully pour them on the meitah, starting on her right side. We cover her in a continuous stream of water, which rolls off her body along the table’s slope and into the sink, leaving her “pure.” 

We dry off her body and the table in order to dress her in tachrichim, simple white linen garments—a pair of footed pants, a shirt, a traditional robe called a kittel, a long fabric belt, a bonnet, and a veil. According to the Talmud, in the second century CE, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel II asked to be buried in plain linen garments rather than the lavish, expensive burial clothing that was common at the time among those who could afford it. The use of simple tachrichim has since become customary, allowing all Jews regardless of their class or social status to be buried with dignity. The underlying principle that all are equal in death is fundamental to the chevra kadisha. 

UPWARD MOBILITY, suburbanization, and an increasing cultural focus on the family and the individual over communal life contributed to the decline of Jewish immigrant mutual aid societies. Jews made new burial arrangements in the suburbs and gained access to private insurance coverage, diminishing the need for membership in fraternal societies.

These economic and geographic shifts fundamentally changed how we understand ourselves in relation to one another, and how we take care of each other as a result. Aspects of human life that used to be communal responsibilities, like ensuring everyone can afford a dignified burial, became the responsibility of increasingly atomized family units. For many white Jews, this move away from mutual aid as an organizing principle of community life tracks with an increased investment in systems of power that benefit white people at the direct expense of nonwhite people, systems that enforce deadly hierarchies of human value.

Just as Jewish burial traditions provided a foundation for structural resistance to antisemitism, my participation in Pittsburgh’s New Community Chevra Kadisha has helped me to see the ways I am invested in the logic of white supremacy. This work has pushed me to question who I deem deserving of care. To whom do I feel obligated to give my care? For whom do I show up? For whom am I willing to take a risk? So far, I have not always liked the way I answer those questions when I’m being honest with myself. They expose the extent to which I buy into myths of self-reliance, accord value to myself and others based on what we produce, and tacitly accept the suffering of people of color. 

In grappling with these questions, it is sometimes tempting to think that understanding white supremacy is the same as unlearning it. But I know I’m not going to think my way into antiracist practice; thankfully, the chevra kadisha has given me tools to act my way into it. In the year since the Tree of Life shooting, I have found that loving and intentional care for the bodies of people targeted for white supremacist violence is a powerful catalyst for personal and political transformation. We can unlearn hierarchies of human value by deliberately flouting them, by refusing to allow the logic of white supremacy to dictate who deserves our care. 

Our burial practices offer more than a way of dealing with the dead, more even than a connection to tradition. They are active antifascism, standing in defiance of the dehumanization of ourselves and others. Doing the seemingly mundane “care work” of feeding and burying and loving each other, as disability justice activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes, is “not a sideline to ‘the real work’ of activism, but the real work of activism” itself. The explosion of growth NCCK experienced after the shooting shows that we instinctively understand that how we care for each other has great political significance and that resisting fascism is about much more than tearing down our system; it’s also about building a new and better world. 

Jordana Rosenfeld is a writer and community organizer in Pittsburgh, PA.