a long body-shaped dummy is spread out on a table in front of an audience as women discuss what to do with it
Attendees practiced tahara (purification of the body of a dead Jew) at the Kavod v’Nichum conference in San Rafael (Photo/Alissa Greenberg)

Body work: Caretakers of the Jewish dead gather in Marin

“This isn’t a dead body. Don’t worry,” joked Susan Barnes. “I know it’s warm out.” She gestured at the folding table in front of her, on which lay a white cloth draped over a vaguely human-shaped lump, as the crowd of about 20 onlookers tittered. “And it’s not a live person either,” she added. “They’d have to lie under that blanket for an awfully long while.”

Barnes was preparing to give a demonstration of tahara, the ritual act of washing and preparing a dead body for burial as set down in Jewish tradition. The demonstration was part of the 15th annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, also known as the Kavod v’Nichum (honor and comfort) conference.

The event drew about 140 participants — funeral directors, hospital chaplains and members of chevra kadisha, the community teams that most often perform tahara — to Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael last week. There, they spent three days trading wisdom, tips and advice on topics surrounding an unconventional but important topic: the Jewish way in death and bereavement.

Chevra kadisha practices trace back to 17th-century Prague, where Judaism’s largely oral tradition about care for the sick and dying was first compiled and codified. This year, the Kavod v’Nichum conference focused on working not just with the dead but also with families of the sick and deceased, helping them in their planning and decision making, said David Zinner, the organization’s founder.

Zinner said he hoped conference attendees would return to their communities inspired to care for the dead, as well as visit the sick in hospitals and comfort grieving families. “That’s the model we’re looking at: bringing back the whole continuum,” he said.

Zinner started Kavod v’Nichum as a multi-denominational resource for people seeking to start a chevra kadisha or change the way death is treated in their Jewish communities. The website includes more than 200 pages of practical knowhow, from how to recycle yahrzeit candles to where to find resources about Jewish burial or what to do about tattoos. Those who might wish to learn more can take a set of intensive classes at the Gamliel Institute, an online school associated with Kavod v’Nichum that boasts 175 students worldwide.

“Curtailing our grief and fear about death and pretending it’s not important is by necessity curtailing the human experience,” said Emily Katcher, a rabbinical student from Seattle. “It’s editing our lives.”

It’s something enriching. If you’re going to treat a dead person with respect and dignity, how much more should you treat a live person with respect and dignity?

Among Kavod v’Nichum’s goals is the opening up of public discussion on a topic many find too uncomfortable and scary to engage with in a meaningful way — what several conference participants call “death denial,” referring to the American tendency to deal with death from a safe distance, even when it’s a loved one who is dying or has died.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman, former chair of Kavod v’Nichum and rabbi emeritus at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, said the spread of chevra kadisha from traditional Orthodox roots into other Jewish denominations shows a sea change in how Jews treat death.

“With the baby boomer generation realizing that they’re mortal, it’s been easier to talk about death,” he said, and to find value in Jewish ritual in that context. “At a time of complete turmoil, there is something that you can count on that is constant, substantial, solid — as opposed to, ‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to talk to.’”

Kelman’s former congregation in one local shul that has a chevra kadisha, divided into groups that perform ritual washing; sit shmira (a ritual that involves reading Psalms to the body and accompanying it between washing and burial); provide support for the family; and organize comforting activities such as social calls throughout the year.

Conference attendees from chevra kadisha groups throughout Northern California and the United States, as well as from Canada, England and Puerto Rico, described groups with differing roles meant to fit their communities. The conference provided opportunities to compare notes and discuss current issues, from how to talk about death with one’s family to what to do about gel nail polish on a body or even how to be respectful of a transgender Jew during tahara.

All these discussions had one thing in common: They focused on how to deal with the dead and their loved ones kindly, respectfully and as human beings.

“It’s something enriching. If you’re going to treat a dead person with respect and dignity, how much more should you treat a live person with respect and dignity?” said Rick Light, who performs tahara with a chevra kadisha in New Mexico. “People who do this tend to be a model in their community for treating everyone right.”

Zinner agreed. “It humbles people because when you touch death it makes you realize your mortality,” he said of performing tahara — a point Barnes echoed during her demonstration (the one without an actual dead body) at the conference.

“You realize your life will be short,” Zinner said, “and you better do something good with it.”

Alissa Greenberg
Alissa Greenberg

Alissa Greenberg is a freelance writer based in Berkeley. She writes about science, culture and community for publications including TIME, The Atlantic, the New Yorker and the Washington Post. Her skills include navigating foreign transit systems, losing sunglasses and detecting Boston accents from a mile away.