I used to read some of the eulogies my father wrote before he delivered them. I was struck by the warmth of his words and by his deep desire to bring comfort to mourners.
I think of him often when I’m at Chesed Shel Emes. When I perform “tahara” with my fellow volunteers, I, too, am bringing comfort to mourners, but in a very different way.
Tahara is the ritual preparation of a body for burial. Men prepare men; women prepare women. Tahara involves a series of careful steps to clean the body and dress it in hand-sewn garments, tied according to ancient practice. Sand and pieces of pottery from Israel are placed over the eyes; a tallit wraps the body; prayers are recited. Tahara takes about an hour. It is a mindful hour. A thoughtful hour. A special hour, during which it is impossible to lose your focus.
While a family won’t likely see the tahara, they can take great comfort that their loved one is being treated with respect and tenderness. It is an honour to perform tahara. Not a burden, not a stressor. Simply a beautiful honour.
It is also an honour to be involved with Chesed Shel Emes, where people representing all Jewish denominations come together in the spirit of cooperation. There is a great commitment among Board and staff to ensure that every Jewish person can be prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition. Chesed Shel Emes is also a place of great skill and competence. I’ve always been impressed by how the Chesed has been able to keep the south building functioning, given its age and heavy use.
That said, the time has come to replace the building so that we may continue to provide safe and dignified care of the deceased for many, many years to come.
Ben Berkal is a retired social worker and former Manager of Mental Health at Victoria Hospital. He is a former member of the Chesed Shel Emes Board of Directors. He is the son of the late Rabbi Louis and Sara Berkal z’l.