Left in Andover: The gift in the rituals of death

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Four women, members of the local chevra kadisha burial society, arrive to perform the ancient rite of tahara, or washing the body of the deceased, upon my mother. As I cross the dimly lit funeral home lobby on my way out to grab a soy latte, they reach out without warning and draw me into their circle.

Cleo, the leader, an old family friend, beckons me to follow her through a narrow door. Exposed pipes indicate the mortuary’s underbelly. Terrified but curious, I join the group in its descent down the basement stairs.

My mother, who lived frugally on a $700 monthly Social Security check, had saved up and prepaid for her own $6,000 religious funeral and burial. This mystified me, as my family is very secular. Dad left instructions to throw him on the compost pile when he died in 1988.

Miriam age 22 hoeing corn 1941.

Shemira, guarding of the body, tahara, sitting shiva and saying kaddish, the four main pillars of Jewish end-of-life tradition, honor the deceased as well as the survivor. But they were all new to me. I had somehow imagined these arcane rites would be beneficial for the ultra-orthodox believer only.

But, to my surprise, in all my seeking through hippie era cults, worship of nature and even synagogue attendance, I had never experienced anything as spiritual as what would soon transpire in that funeral home basement in Northampton, Mass., on Oct. 7, 2012.

I have no idea why Cleo took the risk of including me in her group. I could easily have screamed — or fainted — making it impossible for her to do her job. Several of the members were health-care professionals, accustomed to the sight of death. I was the most squeamish person who ever lived.

Cleo hands me an ordinary comb. “It’s still beautiful,” she whispers to me, instructing me to coif my mother’s hair. In truth, 39 hours after Mom stopped breathing, her natural white curls are the only part of her body still recognizable.

Mom’s hair had been off limits my whole life. It was her one big vanity. We kids were never allowed to mess with it. In a macabre game of “Corpse Barbie,” I comb it to perfection, arranging her two signature quotation mark bangs in the middle of her forehead.

The body is supported on a long low plastic table. We five women gently pour clear water over it from a ceremonial two-handled cup. Transported into a different dimension, I am part of an esoteric sisterhood chanting ancient taharah prayers, begging forgiveness of the corpse for any indignity inflicted upon it as we fulfill the duty to wash it.

Miriam in the late 1970s.

Cleo demonstrates for me how to tie the gossamer thin drawstrings of Mom’s white burial shrouds in the complicated triple fingered design of a shaddai, signifying God’s name. We lift the body into a simple pine coffin.

It is standard practice to make up a small bag of dirt from Israel to put into the coffin. I am assigned this task as well, calling into mind my mother’s time in the carrot fields of her Israeli kibbutz in 1948. Her words:

“I pressed ever closer to peace in sunshine and rain. In the life of the earth I lost myself, and there found love, all in my garden.”

For good measure, I also slip Mom’s hated over-sized toe nail cutter into a corner by her feet.

The loving kindness of the women volunteers overwhelms me. I have since come to believe this was my mother’s precise intention in engineering her own traditional funeral. It was a lasting gift as well as a profound learning experience for me.

Denied the chance to hold hands one last time, denied the chance to mourn together: my heart goes out to those who lose a loved one during this time of Covid. These rituals that my own family had up until that moment actually abandoned, are old as mankind. Honoring the dead, they also support the living, individually and in community.

Due to the advanced state of decomposition of Mom’s body, the taharah process stretched longer than anticipated. Since she died on a holiday, she had not been buried immediately. There was no time afterwards for the volunteer group to travel to the nearest mikveh in Amherst for a ritual bath.

I drove home to Andover later that day. My fiddler’s well in our back yard had magically filled over the preceding 24 hours, a symbolic good-luck mikveh of sorts.

But I still had further to travel. That very same evening my friend S called to ask if I would be willing to make a clay cremation urn for his young son who had also just died.

A hundred years ago, a prank loving Andover boy made realistic wolf and bear noises from behind some trees at two young Kallio sisters as they walked to school in Simonsville. The girls were my friend S’s future mother

Miriam in 2009, three years before her death.

and her sister Saima.

Saima, choking on a piece of apple in her surprise, or because she had a weak heart (I have heard both these versions) “died of fright.” This story has always haunted me, identifying as I do with the Kallio family who once owned my own childhood home, Popplewood Farm.

According to S, Saima’s body, as was customary among the local Finns at that time, was laid out upon the dining room table for several days while the family grieved and arrangements were made. This stage in the mourning process in the Jewish tradition would be known as shemirah, or guarding the body.

I felt much braver about death after my own recent experience with taharah. Drawing from the well of love and kindness my mother’s chevra kadisha burial society had opened up for me, I accepted the task of making the clay cremation urn for my friend’s son.

S came to my outdoor throwing shed and we made it together on my potters wheel to his specifications.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Cynthia Prairie says:

    Susan replied: David- Yes! So delighted you asked. My mother was indeed an original member of the Young at Heart Chorus. She has a great cameo in the movie playing her fiddle while sound asleep. I plan to write more about this soon.

  2. David Ladd says:

    Hi Susan,

    Great story! Was you mother in the ‘Young at Hearts Choir” and was she in the movie? (I love that movie).