The Last Responder – Sarah Birnbach

When the phone’s ring startled me early in the morning, I saw Katie’s number on my caller ID. Her calls always had urgency and I answered immediately.

“The hospital is bringing Mrs. Bornstein in. The family has asked that you gather your team.”

People are often surprised – shocked, even – when I tell them what I do, since ours is a death-phobic society. Yet it is one of the most beautiful and sacred acts of kindness I have ever extended to another. It is a final act of love.

I carry out a ritual that makes many people squirm. I transform one of the unholiest objects – a corpse – into one of the holiest by preparing the body, a vessel for its soul, to face God. I look death square on as I touch, clean and dress the corpse. This is holy work done with no expectation of thanks or reward.

I lead the Chevra Kadisha (Holy Fellowship) in my synagogue – the group of women who prepare the deceased female for burial according to Jewish custom. Our job is to midwife the soul of the deceased from this world to the next.

Judaism offers a rich variety of rituals and practices to honor the dead. Many of these are ancient, mysterious, and often misunderstood. The most time-sensitive, occurring within hours after death, is the Tahara, the purification and preparation of the body for interment.

Jewish rites around death are rooted in the idea that the body is a vessel for holiness. Having held the spirit in life, the body is to be treated with care and respect. Serving in the Chevra Kadisha is an act of chesed shel emet – true loving kindness.

Because traditional Jews do not embalm, deceased are buried 24-48 hours after death. When I get the call, either from my rabbi or one of our local funeral homes, that a female congregant has died, I organize a minimum of four women to fulfill this sacred act. The calls I make are “Can-you-drop-everything?” requests, often made with just a few hours’ notice, with little time to arrange childcare or rearrange appointments. Our Chevra Kadisha members have cancelled classes and given up theater tickets to undertake this holy act instead. They are a team of angels – spiritual beings possessing extraordinary compassion, reverence, and commitment.

People often ask me, “Doesn’t it make you sad? Don’t you cry?”

The truth is, I don’t cry. I am awed.

“I feel privileged to care for this human being and her soul in her final hours on this earth.” This response flows from my heart.

Perhaps I have been fortunate. I have not been called to care for a young child or a murder victim as women in other congregations have. I have not had to care for someone who is brought in directly from a failed surgery or someone whose body has been abused. I imagine I’d cry or want to scream in those circumstances.

When I enter the Tahara room, I enter into an intimate relationship with a woman who is transitioning from this world to the next. I am in liminal space; I feel its holiness.

When a midwife brings a baby into the world, she helps the child emerge from a safe, dark coziness into a brightly lit unknown environment, entering clean and pure. We believe that when a woman dies, she experiences a similar transition – from a familiar world navigated in her body to an unknown world – from one realm of existence to another. We ensure that she leaves the world cleansed and purified by this religious act. We ready her to enter the next world with the same reverence and gentleness that was shown to her when she first entered this world.

Before entering the room, we assign roles and tasks. Once inside, we work primarily in silence, speaking only to recite the prayers and blessings or to confer about an unusual circumstance. We never pass anything across the woman’s body, as we believe that her soul lingers just above her body, nor do we stand at her head, since we believe God’s presence hovers there. We touch her as a mother would caress an infant who was also unable to care for herself.

I had learned, from being at my father’s deathbed, that death looks nothing like the cosmeticized version we see on television or in the movies. But this custom brings beauty to a previously beautiful woman.

First we recite a prayer asking God to give us the courage and strength to perform this holy work of cleansing the body, dressing her in the customary shrouds, and preparing her for burial. After we wash our hands and don gloves and aprons, we recite a prayer asking forgiveness for anything inappropriate we might accidentally do while carrying out the tradition. The implication: her soul is present and aware. We then recite a prayer asking God, on behalf of the deceased, for compassion and mercy for her. We pray that her soul will come to rest with the righteous in Gan Eden (Paradise).

Next we approach the metal table on which she lies in a zippered bag. We remove the body, and undress and examine her. Some bodies – often those coming from nursing homes – are meticulously clean. Others, who may have died at home, need more cleansing. Some bodies are easy to position, but when rigor mortis has set in, we have to be even more delicate.

Before we can begin the Tahara, we lovingly wash her from head to toe with warm water and cloths. We clean and clip her nails, wash and comb her hair, bathe her body. We care for her as if she were preparing herself to attend Sabbath services. As I do this, I feel the same tenderness that I feel when brushing the hair of my granddaughters. We recite Shir Hashirim from the Song of Songs, reminding us that she was a beautiful human being, created in God’s image.

Then we start the actual purification by pouring warm water over the body, in a continuous flow from head to foot. This is intended to replicate the sanctity of the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, and achieve spiritual purity, all the time repeating “She is pure” and reciting blessings from Ezekial and Jeremiah. This is the moment of status transformation.

We gently dry her body using clean towels and dress her in the time-honored Jewish burial garments – white, hand-sewn, linen garments designed to emulate the clothes of the High Priests. They have no pockets, buttons, snaps, or other fasteners. According to Leviticus (16:4), the High Priests attained closeness to God in the linen tunic. We dress the deceased similarly so she will also attain closeness to God and show that, in death, we are all as holy as the holiest of our People. These burial garments are the same for all traditional Jews, reflecting our belief in our fundamental equality in the eyes of God. Burying all Jews in these simple shrouds saves embarrassment for those who cannot afford fancy clothing.

We dress her in a particular order, ensuring her dignity. We cover her head and face first, acknowledging that we are the last people who will see her face. We put on the collarless undershirt and tie it at the neck, followed by the pants which are sewn shut at the feet, and then the collared top shirt, also tied at the neck. Once she is dressed, we tie the sash around her waist making three loops in the shape of the Hebrew letter shin, representing one of the names of God – Shaddai – translated as “Almighty.”

We gently lift her from the table and place her carefully into the aron (casket), reciting the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) that is used at the most sacred times in our lives:

May the Lord bless you and keep you

May the Lord shine upon you and be gracious unto you

May the Lord show you kindness and grant you peace.


Traditional Jews are buried in plain pine boxes held together with wooden pegs rather than metal screws or nails — wood that naturally decomposes so the body can return to the earth. Selecting the simplest casket reflects Judaism’s tenet in the equality of all in death.

Before closing the lid on the coffin, we put clay pottery shards on her eyelids and lips, symbolizing penitence for any possible sins the eyes or mouth may have committed during life. The pieces of broken clay, representing her now broken life, bring the earth into direct contact with the body. If she wore a prayer shawl, called a tallit, during her life, we cut one of the four fringes and place it in the sash around her waist, showing she is no longer responsible for wearing the tallit. We then drape the prayer shawl around her shoulders and wrap her body in a burial sheet, as we would swaddle a baby in a blanket. We sprinkle sand from Israel on her eyes and in the casket so the first thing she will “see” in the world to come will be the soil of our holy land.

Once the casket is closed, it is not reopened. Chevra Kadisha members again recite the Mechilah, this time praying for forgiveness for any accidental act that did not show respect or for any action that might have offended her or caused her distress or humiliation. We assure her that we have not been mechanical but have treated her with the utmost kavanah – intention and focus of purpose.

Before leaving, I lean over the coffin and, in a whisper, bid her farewell using her Hebrew name.

“Good bye, Roisa bat Nuchem. You are ready to go on now. May God protect you.”

When we exit the building, we do a final hand washing from a pitcher that is left outside. We take time to confer with one another and express any concerns, feelings, emotional issues, or other responses to the experience we have just shared. These can be particularly poignant when we have known the deceased. As the leader, I ensure that everyone is ready to reintegrate to daily life and, if not, provide any needed support. We take a moment of silence for private meditation and reflection. I have been blessed with a fellowship of resilient and strong spiritual beings.

Each time I exit the Tahara room, I am overwhelmed with the sanctity of each human being and the fragility of life. Performing this act of kindness for the dead reminds me to show the same kindness to the living. When I midwife a soul, giving respect and dignity to a divine being, I feel God’s warmth enfold me.

The spark of holiness is kindled in my soul. I have been given a blessing. I am a last responder.


Since beginning her non-fiction writing career in 2016, Sarah’s stories have been published in numerous magazines, journals, and newspapers, including The Jerusalem Post and The Washington Jewish Week. Sarah is the women’s Chevrah Kadisha coordinator for her synagogue,  and one of the Jewish Book Council’s 2023-2024 featured authors.   Her debut memoir, A Daughter’s Kaddish: My Year of Grief, Devotion, and Healing was published by Wonderwell Press in 2022.  Learn more at: 

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