Silent Sisters: Caring for the dead in gendered religious space

Nuri McBride is a Metaheret, which means washing and ritually preparing the dead in the Jewish traditions, as well as assisting in funeral preparation and bereavement. As a member of  a Chevras you provide kosher body preparation, funeral services, bereavement support, and palliative care, free of charge as a community service. With women outnumbering men in Chevras 2 to 1, Nuri addresses the issues and restrictions of practicing this sacred duty in a highly gendered space.

Young Woman in the Synagogue


– Nuri McBride –

NuriMcBride

Beyond her calling as a Metaheret, Nuri is in the last year of her J.D, works in the non-profit sector, is an avid niche perfume collector and olfaction nerd, and blogs about the intersection of death customs and scent over at Death, Scent, & The Live Girl

Twitter: @DeathandScent

Facebook: @deathandscent@deathandscent

Instagram: @deathandscent

Tumblr: deathscentandthelivegirl.tumblr.com

Flipboard: @livegirlnuri


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So I heard if the dead have tattoos you scrape them off with a cheese grater or they can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery

Is it true that you put dirt from their homeland in the coffins like Dracula?

What do you mean you don’t get paid to do bury people?”

These are the most common questions I receive when people find out I am a member of a Chevra Kadisha (lit. Sacred Society), aka a Jewish burial society, which is as mystifying an organisation to most English speaking Jews as it is to outsiders. By the way, the answers to the above questions are, yes you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo we don’t cut them offsometimes, and no, it’s against my religion.

I am a Metaheret, which means I wash and ritually prepare the dead in the Jewish traditions, as well as assist in funeral preparation and bereavement. Chevras are volunteer burial societies that exist in Jewish communities around the world and provide kosher body preparation, funeral services, bereavement support, and palliative care, free of charge as a community service. The modern incarnation of the Chevra began in the 14th century but the basic rituals are much older. Though each local burial society has their own personality and history, Chevras in general, have been pillars in Diaspora communities alongside the mikva (ritual bath), synagogue, and rabbi.

Far from the creepy stereotype of the undertaker, it is considered an honour and a sacred duty to be a Metaheret. Women outnumber men in Chevras in the English speaking world 2 to 1. For female members, it is a rare public position of religious responsibility that is universally respected across denominations. For our male Metaherim (m. plural), however, the goodwill created by our sacred society can translate into social mobility, which is not shared equally with their female counterparts. Women are rarely on advisory boards or become Chevra president. These positions historically have led to leadership in other Jewish institutions. While Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox women theoretically can join a Chevra, I have never in 15 years met a Reform Metaheret, though I do hear tell they exist. The vast majority of women that prepare the dead in Judaism come from the more observant streams where community bias against women in pronounced.  This matters even for people outside of Orthodoxy because 65% of the Jewish population worldwide uses some kind of Chevra Kadisha service during their burial. It is the only readily accessible service available to Jews in Israel. In Europe and North America, even in many liberal communities, often Orthodox women (being held to strict Orthodox rules) come in to provide these functions for liberal for-profit funeral home. These rules, by the way, had their last major reform in the 16th century. The 16th century wasn’t the best time to be a woman.

So much of Jewish burial practices are about the equalising nature of death and the humanity of the dead, yet the practice of preparing the dead is extremely gendered and unequal in traditional Judaism. Metaherot (f. plural), especially younger and more liberal Metaherot, are questioning our roles in Jewish death and society as well as what we can do to shape these traditions towards a more egalitarian future without losing our identity. I don’t have a lot of answers; however, as a former Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) that left strict observance, yet still operates as a Metaheret, I get to walk between the 16th and 21st centuries fairly regularly. In places like Brooklyn, Silver Springs, Gateshead, or Bnei Brak, the difference between a modern metropolitan hub and the shtetl is about two blocks, yet rarely do they cross paths.

 


Kosher Burial 101


 

There are for-profit funeral homes and cemeteries geared towards the Jewish community, especially in the US. However, Jewish law dictates that no material benefit can be accrued from the dead and there are Talmudic decrees for simple minimalistic funerals in the name of equality. Also ideally, one would be buried by sunset on the day of death, leaving little time for preparation. Due to these constraints, the commercialization of burial practices and the development of a secular consumer business model did not gain significant traction in Jewish communities until fairly recently and are very controversial. In Judaism our preparation is very simple. As a Metaheret, I have five main responsibilities to the dead which are general lumped together and called Taharah but include:

Sh’mirah: Vigil-keeping from the time of death until burial
Rehitzah: Washing the body to remove dirt and foreign matter
Taharah: Ritual purification of the body with flowing water
Halbashah: Dressing the body in takhrikhim (shrouds)
Hashkavah: Placing the dead in a coffin or preferably in the grave without one

Beyond this, our work is focused on the living, assisting the family with the funeral and shiva (mourning).

While I have my share of criticism, overall I love our custom. It is simple, dignified, communal, and economically egalitarian. When it comes to how we treat the dead it’s with the utmost sensitivity and consideration. We don’t apply makeup or dress the dead in clothes because to do so would be mimicking life and a denial of the reality of death. We do not practice embalming nor do we drain the body. For us, being at peace requires the decomposition of one’s whole being into the earth. Traditionally coffins won’t even use metal closures as metal is symbolic of tools and weapons which do not represent rest and peace.

Once you are in the care of the Chevra Kadisha we will always use your name, you will always be a person, you will never be an object. If death is expected, we can meet with you and your family ahead of time as part of your end of life care. Once you die you will never be left alone, not even during an autopsy. We will make sure every bit of you is in that grave. I know ZAKA volunteers in Israel that have spent 24 hours after a suicide bombing on their hands and knees in blood making sure every fragment of bone was accounted for and received a proper burial.

A three-person Taharah team will work in silence (accept for softly whispered prayers), with intense concentration, as they meticulous prepare your body. At the end, they pray for your forgiveness if they have offended you in their preparation. If your family is having trouble procuring things we don’t traditionally cover like burial plots, and headstones we will do whatever we can to help. When your family is grieving we can be there as much or as little as they need. If you die without family to mourn you, we will conduct your funeral and be your mourners and consider it a great honour.

 


Women in the Chevra


 

Now here’s the rub, Jewish culture is deeply gendered. It’s present in our language which genders even abstract concepts and numbers. It’s present in our traditional society. Jewish culture’s basic social unit is the heteronormative family, not the individual. Unlike Western cultures, Semitic cultures are profoundly uncomfortable with the individual. While it is uncomfortable with a male individual too, it is supremely uncomfortable with a single adult female individual. Enormous portions of Jewish law are devoted to the regulation of female behaviour sometimes rather arbitrarily or for the catch-all reason of modesty.

Therefore in my role as a death care provider, because I am a woman, I cannot fill containers or pour water in the Taharah ritual if I am niddah. Burial shrouds are traditionally made by postmenopausal women also for issues of possible ritual contamination due to menstruation. Which begs the question, what on Earth do you think happens during a period? It also means I have to discuss my period in a coded, roundabout, fashion with my fellow Chevra members on a near monthly basis. Some burial societies will not allow single women or married women that have not had a child to be a Metaheret.  I cannot perform my duties at all if I am pregnant because of the superstitions that a Dybbuk  might possess my baby. I repeatedly reminded a former Chevra leader of mine that a Dybbuk is an Ashkenazi folktale with no basis in our religion or reality and as a Sephardic person it is completely foreign to me. I was met with the brick wall that ends most arguments in Judaism, “It is our tradition. It is how our forefather did it so it is how we do it. End of story.”

Most mortuary technicians have to wear special garb for health reasons. Along with gloves, apron, and face mask, I have to wear a skirt below my knees and ensure my elbows, collarbone, and hair is covered even if I am working in a closed, all female, environment because to do otherwise would be immodest.

I’m not allowed to be a pallbearer, only male burial society members can. Male members, however, are not authorised to sit vigils for female corpses. Yet, women can sit vigil for both male and female dead. As a female, I can only perform the Taharah on women, that is, unless a male burial society member isn’t available and then I can serve a man. However, under no circumstances can it be reversed, even if it means delaying the funeral. The immediate assumption of impropriety or sexualization on the part of a man, but not a woman, is belittling to everyone and leaves the Metaherot doing more than their fair share.

 


Corpse Modesty


 

Then there is the issue of corpse modesty. Modesty in this sense is the desexualizing and policing of the female form. In life, Haredi and Modern Orthodox women and girls are conditioned to regulate theirs and other’s bodies for modesty constantly; if they don’t, they risk random men walking down the street doing it for them. It is taken as fact that men cannot control their lust for sweet lady flesh, and it is women’s responsibility to keep them from sinning. As such, modesty has become a community obsession, with rabbis issuing edicts on the age in which a girl should start covering her legs  (6 years old) as well as the density and colour of their tights (opaque and beige). This sexual policing does not end when a woman dies. Instead, the role of modesty protector for the sake of male virtue falls to her Metaherot.

I was once called in to meet with the family of a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor. It was three days before she would pass, she was in hospice and unresponsive.  Of all the questions her sons could have asked me at our first meeting, they focused on making sure it would be me that removed her IV and feeding tube once she died because her primary nurse was male. While it was tolerable that she was touched by him in life for medical care, at death the removal of her IV drifted into lascivious territory or possible desecration of the dead. All I could think was, “Really, this is your first question? Your mother survived Buchenwald and you think the nice nurse removing her IV will harm her spirit or turn him into a lust monster?”

Yet, this is where the sexual politics of Jewish death gets a bit difficult to navigate. I want to respect the personal wishes of the dead. Many of the women on my table have never been touched by a man other than their husband or a doctor. If they thought about their purification at all they thought about it as a sacred female space, three living daughters of Israel bringing their sister to peace. A man participating would be a violation of that sisterhood. There is power in female solidarity and shared ritual. However, does it have the same weight if our seclusion is mandatory? Is it just a coping strategy? Are they actually letting me perform this function out of respect for the feminine half of divinity, or is it because they don’t want to touch dead women, or because they assume men will have sex with dead women? The answer is in the question itself, they are letting methey have the power over me.

On the 7th of Adar (the anniversary of Moses’ death), all the Chevras fast in atonement for any disrespect we may have inadvertently shown the dead. In the evening when we break the fast there is a banquet in our honour and the Chevra president holds a lecture to refresh us on Jewish laws regarding burial. It’s hard not to feel like a second class citizen when you are at a party supposedly in your honour, and there is still a sign in the lecture hall saying, WOMEN TO THE BACK. By back they mean that extra row of lawn chairs hastily lined up behind a curtain so that the even the Chevra president can’t see you and everyone can pretend you don’t exist. They talk about the brotherhood of those that bury the dead and the fraternal order, all I can think is, “We have always been here.”

 


We’ve Always Been Here


 

No custom is static, even old ones change. Before the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews buried their dead in caves or rock-cut tombs. The vigil began before burial and didn’t end until three days afterwards to insure the person was indeed dead and the tomb properly sealed. Preparation of the dead was done only by women, who were also professional mourners, stirring up emotion with their laments. On the first anniversary of a loved one’s death, the bones would be collected and meticulously arranged into stone ossuaries for reburial. The earliest ossuaries go back to the Chalcolithic era, but after 135 C.E they stopped being used, customs change.

Little is known specifically about the burial customs of Jewish women between then and the 14th century. Most are not named in historical records. If they are it is only concerning their husband, father, or son. Women worked in Chevras at least as far back as the 15th century and probably further back. Women also probably tended to their dead at home. Graveyards in Germany and Spain have been found with separate male and female sections both having distinctive styles leading scholars to believe they may have had separate Chevra Kadishas for women or that women had more autonomy in female burial at the time. After all, Jewish women were extremely active in business both in Medieval Sephardic and Ashkenazi societies and had a high degree of economic independence.

In the late 17th century Nashim Zadkaniyyot (Pious Women) societies formed in Europe, completely removed women from the care of the Chevra Kadisha. Nashim Zadkaniyyot were all female organisation that provided all of the services of the Chevra, but also did other charitable works like feed the poor, foster orphans and fund hospitals. Sadly, the Nashim Zadkaniyyot disbanded or were subsumed back into the Chevra Kadishas over time.

 


Traditions That Don’t Grow, Die


 

Critics could say sexism is part of Orthodoxy and if I don’t like it go elsewhere. To which I ask, where? Rarely are Chevras set up by Reform or Conservative congregations. These communities, at least in the US and the UK, instead patron all-inclusive funeral homes that provide these services for a profit. Some of these funeral homes are amazing, working with Chevras when they can, and facilitating choices that wouldn’t be allowed in Orthodoxy, like cremation, but still provide Jewish elements to the funeral. Still, I feel many prey on a lack of understanding and fear of exclusion from Orthodox institutions. That fear isn’t completely unfound. Orthodox congregations often exclude less observant streams of Judaism from many things like private mikvas and kosher certifications, but to deny a proper burial to anyone is a major sin and that is what we are doing when we gate-keep on death issues and keep women from leadership.

An example; several years ago I volunteered with a Chevra that worked closely with a now defunct funeral home in Florida. The funeral home catered to the Reform community. One day I was called to fill in for another Metaheret that had taken care of the body that afternoon but couldn’t stay for the vigil. I agreed to help out and as I arrived I was met by a tearful and harried woman, the deceased’s daughter, in the car park. Before I could say more than my name and I’m sorry for your loss, she leaned in and in an embarrassed whisper said, “Would it be ok if I tipped you all in cash next week? I’m so sorry, it’s just a little tight right now.” I was confused. She proceeded to tell me that the funeral home bill included: Transportation to the Facility $200, Preparing the Body $1800, Shroud $300, Coffin $900, Gratuity for Preparation and Shomer (vigil) Staff: $100+. She burst into tear when I told her we asked the funeral home for our standard donation per person $120: $20 for gas, $35 for the shroud, and $65 for the coffin (the cost of materials). We don’t charge for Taharah, our labour or accept tips. If she had come directly to us, we would have never discussed a donation. When I asked her why she didn’t reach out to the Chevra even to just do some parts, she said that the only Chevra members she had ever seen were Orthodox men. She was Reform and there was no Reform Chevra in town, she had no idea a Chevra Kadisha would work with a Reform funeral home. Her most notable recent experience with Orthodox society occurred on vacation in Israel. She had been to the Mea She’arim neighborhood in Jerusalem and seen a crowd of religious men spitting on female tourists and calling them whores for coming into their neighborhood dressed in tee shirts and shorts. Her mother had wanted a relatively Jewish funeral but her family didn’t know how to fulfill that wish. From her daughter’s perspective, it was go with the austere looking fellows with the beards that might spit on me that I know next to nothing about, or this friendly gentleman with a website that will bury my mom for $10,000 and says it’s a barging.

This is why I choose to stay and fight for access and inclusion from the inside. I want people to know their options and families to feel involved. I don’t want to see our beautiful traditions become a line item on a spreadsheet. I don’t want to see families go into debt because they have to bury their dead. I don’t want Jews that don’t fit a mould be made to feel afraid to claim their customs which are their birthrights. Many Reform and Conservative synagogues in the US and UK want to rekindling Chevra Kadishas and they are going to need allies willing to teach the foundation of customs that have become lost to them. I don’t want to simply opt-out and allow an unfair system to go unchallenged. As Death Positivity and Natural Death advocacy grows, we have centuries of knowledge to share with other communities and might even learn a thing or two ourselves. All of this, however, means facing some hard truths about death and gender in Judaism.

I know there will be those that say, “Well in my Chevra…” and that’s valid. Judaism is not a monolith, local custom and affiliation may soften or eradicate some of the effects that I’ve discussed. Yet, when I speak to other Metaherot from around the world, I see the struggles of female death care practitioners echoing many of the struggles women are facing throughout Jewish society.

In June 2016, Nishma Research released the first large-scale survey of those that choose to leave Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Most felt they were pushed out instead of lured away by the bright lights of secularism. The number one reason for leaving listed by both women and men was the treatment of women in Orthodox society. 37% of women said it was their only or primary reason. It was central to my own defection.

Times change, and customs that don’t learn to balance tradition with the reality of modern life will cease being relevant and die off. Even in the most isolated of Haredi communities women are starting to speak up. Orthodox Feminism is growing and Metaherot are in a unique position to be leaders for positive change in our communities. Despite every effort to cut us off from modern society, we know that other women have the right to divorce their husbands. We are aware there is no reason why we can’t touch a Torah scroll. We are aware having eight kids in ten years while living below the poverty line isn’t a blessing. We know other death professionals do not have to sit behind a curtain at a conference. We are aware that when you shrug and say, “Don’t worry, G-d will provide”, the manifestation of G-d you are speaking about is a woman’s back, and we don’t want to be silent anymore.

I am interested in bridging the dialogue between women working in the commercial death industry and women working in the religious or traditional death sphere.

What challenges do you face?

How do you balance tradition and modern ethics?

Please feel free to comment below, or contact me directly.

Young Woman in the Synagogue
‘Young Woman in Synagogue’ by Isidor Kaufmann

4 thoughts on “Silent Sisters: Caring for the dead in gendered religious space

  1. Great post. There are many of us, men and women, from many streams of Judaism in the US, Canada, and even the UK, Puerto Rico and Israel who share your concerns about preserving beautiful traditions and treating people with respect. We want all people treated with respect in life and death, and we want those who mourn to be comforted. Check out the work of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort, http://www.Jewish-funerals.org) and its training prorgam, The Gamliel Institute. I’d be interested in feedback on a talk I recorded, related issues–http://bit.ly/2bovISp
    Let’s talk?

    Like

  2. It seems Jews are the only ones who really have a role for dead people who don’t have anyone to mourn them. It makes me mad at the disrespect when people don’t care about the treatment of the dead because they dead so in their minds in no longer matters what becomes of them. I feel this is wrong and your traditions acknowledging their personhood are very touching. Great article, very educational.

    Like

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