Help Us See Your Face
Chesed shel emet they call it – the truest loving-kindness, preparing a body for burial. Truest, because it is done at inconvenient times, in harshly-lit rooms. Truest, because touching dead people isn’t fun. Truest, because the kindness can never be repaid by the recipient – and that’s just fine with Blanche Blick. If the dead can’t thank you, they can’t NOT thank you. Can’t forget you on your birthday and Mother’s Day; can’t leave you off their guest lists and committees. But this committee, the Chevra Kadisha – the holy burial society – had actually sought Blanche out (well, Blanche and whoever else received the VOLUNTEERS NEEDED letter a while back). And she liked the idea of doing what the letter called “God’s sacred work.” Blanche isn’t sure she even believes in God anymore, not since Ed Marmelstein from the shul died trying to save colleagues in the stairwell of the North Tower. But if God does exist, she figures, she is more likely to meet Him while performing the “truest loving-kindness” than when she’s singing jaunty prayers about animal sacrifices on Shabbos morning, or shopping at Jacobson’s Butchery for kosher meat.
When she told her husband, Murray, that she was thinking of signing up for the Chevra Kadisha, he’d just rolled his eyes. “Well, maybe you can make friends with some dead people,” he’d muttered. “Lord knows none of the live ones seem all that interested in you.” Blanche had made a big show of throwing the letter away so that he would stop knocking her. But then, when he wasn’t home, she had called to volunteer – the first time, the only time, she had ever gone behind Murray’s back to do anything. Now, whenever she slips out at dawn to perform her service, she just tells him that she needs a few things at the store for his breakfast. And how would he know differently? The man hasn’t opened the refrigerator himself in 45 years.
Today, when she gets the call, she tells him that she is out of eggs.
She starts her car and turns off the radio. There’s no prohibition against listening to music on the way to a tahara, a ritual cleansing of the body, but it just doesn’t feel right, somehow. The first time she volunteered, when she thought music might calm her nerves about touching a corpse, she’d had the car radio on for a moment, but then turned it off immediately. It reminded her of when she had the C-section with Jonathan all those years ago, and the obstetrician had been singing along to pounding rock-and-roll music and telling jokes to the residents observing the surgery, as if Blanche’s having a baby was nothing special; as if delivering a healthy little boy was just the same as removing a polyp. Even now, 40 years later, she is mad at herself for not asking the doctor to quit it with the jokes, to turn off that awful music. Blanche prides herself on not holding a grudge against anyone. Not against Al Edelstein, who left her off the New-Rabbi Search Committee even though she has lived here in West Cloverdale longer than almost anyone. Not against Barbara Kranzler, who didn’t ask her to be on the West Kloverdale Kosher Kooking Konnection budget committee even though Blanche has been a bookkeeper at Saint Francis Hospital since 1979. Not even against her own mother, she should rest in peace, who had shrugged and said, “Well, you’re not getting any younger,” when Blanche brought Murray home, instead of maybe saying that Blanche should hold out for a man who was nicer to her. No, she likes to let bygones be bygones; forgive and forget. But she can’t forgive herself for not telling Dr. Fenster to shush it up in the delivery room. Some things, she thinks, should be done in silence.
So now, she keeps the radio off and the windows open, and tries to think pure, sacred thoughts as she makes her way down Wordsworth Avenue towards the funeral parlor. She wonders which other volunteers will be there today. There are nine women on the committee who take turns: four from her own shul; four from the Orthodox shuls in surrounding towns; and Karen Goldberg from Temple Beth Judah over on Keats Boulevard, which isn’t Orthodox at all. That had caused something of a stir at first, but Blanche is glad Karen is on the committee. Karen has a calming presence and a kind smile, always looks you in the eye when she talks to you. More than once, after working side-by-side with Karen, Blanche has thought she might like to try Beth Judah herself, just once, to see what it’s like; if maybe everyone there is as sweet and as calm as Karen. But then she imagines the argument about it with Murray and just goes back to their regular shul and sits in her regular seat, under the air conditioning duct that drips even in December.
Karen is already at the funeral parlor when Blanche gets there this morning. She has been guarding the body all night, as custom requires. In Judaism, only the living are left all alone. Sandy Gabor arrives right after Blanche does, and then the tahara-leader, Carol Gold, who is a little bossy for Blanche’s taste but always keeps things running smoothly. Carol nods a wordless hello to the rest of them and wheels the gurney into the cool, bright room where they will perform their ritual. She assigns each woman her role – who will remove the nail polish; who will lay out the shroud – and then, she recites the opening prayer:
“Source of kindness and compassion…Help us see Your face in the face of the deceased, even as we see You in the faces of those who share this task with us…”
Blanche takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, the way she has seen Karen do. She wonders if Karen does yoga and whether she, herself, should try it. But who is she kidding? Yoga! She hasn’t been able to touch her toes since junior high school, and she probably couldn’t cross her legs without throwing a blood clot and killing herself these days, what with her varicose veins. But the breathing part might be nice. She takes another deep breath and a slow exhale as she puts on her latex gloves and fills a bucket with the water they will use to wash the body.
“King of the Universe,” the women begin reciting in Hebrew. “Have mercy on Leah Shayndel the daughter of Yitzchak Moshe. May her spirit rest with the righteous.” There is a moment of anticipation before they unzip the body bag. Blanche is embarrassed by her thought, each time they do this, that it’s almost like opening a present, the way you wonder what lies beneath the wrapping, and whether you will find a surprise.
But nothing really surprises Blanche, not anymore. She has seen everything: Pierced noses and pierced pupiks. Concentration-camp numbers, of course, and plenty of other tattoos too – birds and flowers and butterflies – because the burial society prepares bodies from the Reform synagogues, as well. She has seen mastectomy scars and hip-replaceme