Forsaking one promise about dead bodies to honor another

    (<a href=''>Photo</a> via ShutterStock)

    (Photo via ShutterStock)

    Rabbi Linda Holtzman promises her partner she’ll never touch a dead body. When a member of her synagogue, dying from AIDS, asks her to prepare his body for burial, she agrees. Trouble is, she doesn’t really know how.

    Rabbi Linda Holtzman made a promise to her partner years ago that, despite her fascination with death, she would never touch a dead human body. When a member of her synagogue confesses to her that he is dying from AIDS — and requests that she prepare his body for burial in the traditional Jewish way — she promises to honor his wishes.

    Trouble is, she doesn’t really know how to prepare a body for burial in the traditional Jewish way.

    Holtzman told the story of her first time live at the 13th Annual First Person Arts Festival — about all the went wrong, and all the went wonderfully, mysteriously right.

    Read her story below, followed by a Q&A looking back on the perspective she’s gained about the AIDS crisis, when it’s OK to break the most orthodox of rules, and her passion for vampires and zombies.

    [The audio version above was produced by Kimberly Haas.]

    I’ve been with my partner now for 33 years, which is quite a while. And of all the things she’s had to put up with about me through the years, I think at the top of the “challenging” list for her is my passion for everything death related.

    I loved vampires long before it was en vogue to love vampires. When my one son was little, we used to dress up as mother and son living dead. I couldn’t think of anything better. When my sons’ hamsters would die in the middle of the winter, I would freeze their hamsters until spring, because they needed a proper funeral. You had to be able to bury them, and you couldn’t do that in the middle of January.

    Everything death-related was important to me. And my partner was a little frightened of it all.

    She was used to the fact that, since I was a rabbi, I would do funerals, I would do grief counseling. That felt normal for her. But I talked a lot about wanting to learn how to prepare bodies for burial in a traditional Jewish way. And she would say to me periodically, “Linda, listen. Just promise me you won’t ever touch a dead body.”

    “Of course,” I would say. “I’ll never do that.”

    Well it was the 1980s. And the 1980s brought about it, in the LGBT community, the AIDS crisis. And young men who would come in to see me for counseling, instead of laughing about all of the wonderful other sexy young men they were having a good time with, would come in to tell me about their friends who were sick, would come in to tell me about their own fears that they might be sick, and eventually would come in to tell me who died.

    Well one day a man named Ken, who was part of the LGBT synagogue that I was working with, came in and started taking about nothing — about his mother, whose funeral I had done, who he was remembering; about his brother, who was being nice to him — and I was sitting there thinking: OK. You’re here to tell me something and you haven’t quite hit on it yet. And then he told me.

    “Listen, rabbi,” he said. “I have AIDS. And I don’t know how long I’m going to live. But I’m here because I want to make sure, first, that you’ll do my funeral, and second, that whoever prepares my body for burial does it in the traditional Jewish way — and that it’s someone who really respects me and who I am.”

    And then he left.

    Well, life went on. And I found myself one day with a class in a local funeral home. And since it was sort of on the back of my mind, I decided that I would just ask the funeral director: “I know that there is only one group in the whole city of Philadelphia that will prepare bodies for burial, and it is an orthodox Jewish group. They are fundamentalists. I just want to know: Will they prepare bodies for burial of people who have died from AIDS?”

    “Well,” said the funeral director, “I don’t know that they ever have, but let me show you something.” And he came back with a small card. He said before this group will make a decision about what they will do, they ask their rebbe, their wise rabbi, a question about what they should do. And this is the question they asked:

    Do we have to prepare a body for burial of the person died from complications from AIDS?

    And the rebbe wrote back. “Oh no,” he said. “Not if you think that it will endanger you in any way.”

    “Wait a minute,” I said. “It won’t endanger them in any way. They can wear protective garb. They’ll take care of themselves. It won’t be transmitted in that way. What are you talking about?”

    “Whoa,” said the funeral director. “I’m just reading this to you. I didn’t write it.”

    I went home and decided I couldn’t just keep Ken’s worry in the back of my mind. I needed to do something about it.

    So I put out a call in the progressive Jewish community saying — I thought this would be exciting, right? — Come! Learn how to prepare a body for burial! I expected a few people.

    I got close to 30 people, crammed into my living room, saying We’re ready. We want to learn how to do it.

    We did a brief training.

    Something you should know about Jews. We tend to talk a fair amount. And we tend to process a fair amount.

    Week after week, my group met, and we talked and we processed and we explored every possible avenue for learning about how to prepare a body for burial … and what questions might we be asked … and what would we have to decide … and what were the issues that might come up. And we talked and we talked and we talked. In fact we were having such a good time, that we had almost completely forgotten that there was some reality, that we might at some point be asked to prepare a body for burial, when suddenly one day I got the phone call. Ken’s partner called to tell me that he had died. And it was time for us, for me, to act.

    I had no idea what I was doing. We had been talking for so long, I didn’t even remember how to prepare a body for burial.

    “Of course,” I said. “I’ll be glad to.”

    “Oh there are a few complications,” he said. “I’m not Jewish, but I’d like to participate with you. Is that ok?”

    “Oh sure,” I said.

    He said, “Well, also, Ken’s brother would like to participate. And a few of his friends. And there’s several of us who would like to help out. Would that be OK with your group?”

    “Sure,” I said. “That’ll be just fine.”

    He said, “OK. And one other thing. We’re not using a funeral home on location. We want this to take place at our house.”

    “Wait,” I said. “You know the centerpiece for body preparation for Jews is that you pour over 22 quarts of water on top of the body. Where are we gonna do this in your house?”

    “On the dining room table,” he said.

    I said, “Over 22 quarts of water on the body.”

    “Oh, we’ll just put towels down,” he said.

    “Sure. Why not?”

    “Oh, and by the way,” he said, “there’s one other tiny complication. Ken’s body, after this is all finished, is going to be cremated. Will that be all right?”

    “Well,” I said, “it violates all of Jewish law … but, sure, that will be just fine with our group. Why not?”

    I then, armed with two friends whom I could convince to come with me, some prayers that I hoped were the right prayers, some buckets, some shrouds, some earth from the Mount of Olives that’s traditionally sprinkled on a dead body, and pottery shards to place on the mouth and the eyes of the body, went to Ken’s house.

    Sitting around were his friends and his brother and this partner, looking expectantly at me, as if i would know what to do.

    So having absolutely no clue, I took charge. “OK,” I said. “We prepare this body right now.”

    We walked into the dining room, where Ken was lying on the table. We started. We cleaned him. We did the centerpiece of the ritual of pouring over 22 quarts of water on his body and put mounds and mounds of towels on the floor, which was saturated, as was the floor.

    We chanted words from Song of Songs, which said, “You are perfect. You are beautiful. You are my love.” We dressed Ken in shrouds. We sprinkled the earth. We placed the pottery shards on his eyes and on his mouth. And then we went around and we spoke the words that were in our hearts.

    We’re so sorry you’ve suffered. We so hope we haven’t hurt you. We wish you a safe journey. May the next step in your voyage be a good one, be a peaceful one.

    And then we stood there and we waited.

    When the doorbell rang, we all jumped. It was the funeral director, who came to get Ken’s body to take him back to be cremated.

    We cleaned up and we left.

    After that I decided that I really needed to move ahead. We found a real way to train for preparing bodies for burial. And for 25 years we’ve been preparing bodies. And by now, we have a little bit more of an idea of what we’re doing.

    But the night when I got home, my partner looked at me and said, “So, Linda, how’d it go?”

    And I said, “You know … it was good.”

    So she said, “Did you touch the body?”

    “No,” I said. I lied.

    And later — quite a bit later — I said, “You know, I really did touch that body.”

    And she looked at me and said, “You know, Linda? I knew that all along.”

    Your final confession to your partner, “I really did touch that body,” works like a double-entendre. You not only physically touched Ken’s body, an act of love and intimacy and duty, but you also clearly touched Ken — and his partner and his family and his friends — in more metaphysical and very meaningful ways. You have plainly gone on to touch more bodies and more lives since then. Were you aware, in Ken’s living room, of what you were embarking on? What has that journey been like for you?

    That night, I don’t think that I had any idea of what I was embarking on. It has been a powerful journey.

    A few things that stand out for me: 

    The community of women that has grown through the years that work together with me is the best group of people I know. There is an openness, a generosity of spirit, and a readiness to jump in and be present at a moment’s notice that I rarely see. These are women who share this intimate experience with each other, an experience that is both deeply spiritual and very physical. Doing this work together has made us very close.

    Death is really an enigma. While it is frightening, and the experience of dying can be painful, there is also beauty in washing and dressing a body that had been entwined with a vibrant spirit. I am grateful that I can confront this over and over again. It gives me a deep sense of appreciation for life.

    The families of those we have prepared often say that they are comforted by the fact that their loved one was treated with honor after their death. I am so glad that we can provide that comfort.

    Washing and dressing a dead body is very mundane, physical work. Turning the body, removing nail polish, combing hair, wiping the blood away from wounds. Yet being there at that particular moment is also a deeply spiritual experience. It serves as a constant reminder of just how powerful every mundane moment of life is. I am so glad that I am able to do this work!

    How many rules of the burial proceedings did you break? And why did you decide it was OK in this instance?

    There have been many rules that our group has broken, always for what feels like good reasons. We base our work on several values: respecting Jewish tradition, honoring the body, not denying death, equality in death.

    If there is a need to break or alter a particular rule in order to respond to these values, we will always do it. We will at times let someone be buried in clothing that is not the traditional shroud, place objects that are not typically placed in the coffin with the deceased, or prepare a body that is going to be cremated if it seems that to do so is the best way to honor the values that underlie our work.

    In the case of Ken, it was clear that fully honoring him demanded that those of us who were preparing his body all fully respected him as a gay man. That was the bottom line, whether or not we were following every rule. There was little question about it.

    Can you tell us a little bit about Ken?

    Ken was a middle-aged man; I don’t remember his exact age. He was reserved, smart and solid. He had a loving relationship with his partner and his brother, and he had several good, close friends.

    I remember officiating at Ken’s mother’s funeral. She was a challenging woman, and Ken was clear about showing her respect even if she was not the easiest mother to grow up with. I had a lot of respect for Ken in the adult, sensitive way he honored his mother in her death.

    Telling the story today with 25-plus years between then and now, you sound very calm remembering the sickness and death and fear you witnessed in those early years of the AIDS crisis. What was it really like for you in those days?

    Everyone who was part of the LGBT community of the ’80s and ’90s had a powerful experience during the AIDS crisis of the time. My own experience was at two levels: as a rabbi and as a friend.

    As a rabbi, it was enormously challenging. I officiated at funerals for young men whom I had known, tried to support their families through the experience, and sometimes helped people whose parents hadn’t previously even known that they were gay deal with the shock of learning about their sons and brothers and losing them shortly thereafter. There were memorial services that I was invited to lead by someone’s friends a week after a funeral was held by their family in which they would never mention AIDS or the fact that their relative had been gay. In the services I led, people were invited to remember the deceased honestly.

    I didn’t always respond well. I remember one young man who was so painful for me to visit that I rarely did. His family was deeply angry that I was not present. I’m sure that they felt betrayed by so many of their friends and relatives who had turned away from them that my not being there more fully was very painful. I learned from that experience to be as present as possible when I could and to find a way to deal with my own sadness without letting it impact my work with others.

    As a friend, the crisis was painful in a different way. I had one close friend who died of AIDS-related causes and several more casual friends. The close friend had let me be present with him until right before his death, and I was able to learn from him and be there for him. It was deeply sad and was also a great gift. I had wanted to push my friend to express his anger and everything that I was sure he must be feeling as his body slowly failed him and as he approached a much too early death. Yet he never seemed angry.

    “I’ve had a good life,” he said, “and I am grateful for every year.” That was his attitude until the end.

    When I did the body preparation for Ken, my close friend was a part of the group. I did not yet know that he had AIDS, but he did. He later told me that it was one way that he could be part of the incredibly giving, devoted community that was emerging among the gay men who were taking care of each other. I learned so much from these men!

    The AIDS crisis is so much larger and yet more distant from the local Jewish community now, but there are still many similarities. When a health crisis exists in a largely African[-American] population or among people who are drug addicted, Americans can do what many were able to do in the ’80s with the largely gay population that faced the disease: see the infected population as other, let bigotry limit the resources we are ready to provide, and feel exempt from the illness and what it causes. It feels as if we never learn how closely we are all linked!

    Where do you suppose your “passion about everything death related” comes from? How else has that obsession manifested through the years?

    Death is the great unknown and is the great fear behind all of our smaller fears. Among the many ways to confront fear is the way that I have gravitated toward: paying attention to it, learning about the ways that people have dealt with it, exploring death-related rituals. I enjoyed reading Mary Roach’s “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” and I appreciate that people of some faiths save relics from the bodies of sacred people.

    When I officiate at a funeral, it feels like an honor to be allowed to lead people through the process of facing the death of a loved one. It is an honor to remember the person’s life as a whole and to pay the careful attention to who they are that is not always paid in life.

    I am intrigued by the idea of liminality, the spaces between one state of being and another. The sacredness of doorways, the dangers involved in moving from one state to another. All of this is present when we prepare a body for burial.

    Sometimes when we are washing or dressing a body, we sense an energy shift. When we begin the process, we can sense a kind of “living energy” emanating from the body. And gradually, as we do our work, the energy dissipates until, by the end of the process, it is gone. It feels as if we have been instrumental in helping the person’s energy leave the body and go into whatever is waiting for it. When I began preparing bodies for burial, I would never have believed that this was possible. Now, after many years of doing this work, I have many more questions about the nature of life and death. That feels like a healthy place to be: full of questions.

    Linda Holtzman is rabbi of the newly founded Tikkun Olam Chavurah, faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, founder and organizer of the Reconstructionist chevra kadisha of Philadelphia, on the boards of Philadelphia’s New Sanctuary Movement and the anti-gun violence group Heeding God’s Call, a member of POWER, and on the national board for Jewish Voice for Peace.

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