Thursday, February 5, 2009
'The Burial Shroud' by Marla Lukofsky
It was the day of my mother’s funeral, February 12h , 2006. The time was 7:00am. One of my mother’s last requests before she died was that I assist in dressing her in the traditional burial shroud and I agreed to honour her wish. From what I have been told, this deed is a very rare occurrence. I anxiously waited at my apartment for the funeral home to call and tell me when my mother’s body was ready to be dressed.
Once I got the call, I promptly left and drove carefully to Steeles Memorial, a Jewish funeral home in the north end of Toronto. After parking my car, I looked around and there seemed to be no one in sight. All the drapes were closed and the doors were locked. I knocked on the door several times and finally a man opened it asking me to identify myself. “ Yes, who are you and what do you want?” he said rather abruptly.
“ I’m hear to help dress my mother in the burial shroud” I answered softly.
“ Ah yes, you’re the one” the man now solemnly replied. “Come this way.”
I followed him through a maze of hallways and with each turn, I felt my mother’s presence getting closer and closer. If ever there was any truth to the theory that a person leaves behind a spirit or soul once they pass on, I was a believer at that moment.
Finally he brought me to a large metal door. He knocked on it three times. Out popped a woman’s head. She was wearing a kerchief on her hair and a white robe and rubber boots on her person.
“ Yes, what is it?” she asked.
“The woman is here to dress her mother,” he answered.
“ Oh yes, please, please come in. She is ready for you,” she thoughtfully said to me.
I was escorted into the room. This was where they wash and prepare the deceased before burial. It was extremely cold inside and the floor was wet with water. There were two other women in the room who were assisting the woman in charge with the body preparations. They too wore head covering, white robes, and rubber boots on their feet. There was a garbage bin tucked away in the far corner, full of hospital gowns, blankets and other paraphernalia from every medical establishment and home in the city. It was full of the last remains that adorned the bodies that had passed through this room. I recognized many of the colours in the bin since we had gone to several different hospitals during my mother’s 8-month illness.
As the woman guided me to the centre of the cold room, she told me that my mother must have been a very beautiful woman because she is still so very beautiful even now. The other two women quickly agreed. “ Yes, she is a very beautiful woman” they said almost in unison.
These women were right about that. My mother was a natural beauty and retained her looks right up until the end and thereafter.
“ Here she is” said the woman in charge, as she placed me beside the cold wet table where my mother lay. My breath left my body at that moment, not because I was afraid of what I saw but rather because I couldn’t wait to see my mother again and take care of her one last time and that time had now come. There she was, so still, so beautiful. The women stood around quietly as I leaned over to touch my mother’s face and hold her hand. I find that death is the deepest of silence. It is unlike any other silence I have ever heard.
The woman in charge placed a robe around me, told me to say some prayers in Hebrew and we proceeded to place my mother in the burial shroud. I then wrapped the belt around her waist as instructed, all the while reciting the Hebrew words that the woman told me to. I folded the end of the belt three times, hoping that I was doing everything in accordance with the Jewish law. After a few minutes, the shroud was in place and we all carefully moved my mother into her coffin, while I paid extra attention to every movement so that my mother’s body was never bumped or hurt.
“We have to keep going because we have many more to clean up and prepare today,” the woman in charge compassionately told me. “I don’t mean to rush you. I can give you one last moment with your mother and then we must move on.”
I thought to myself, ‘How does one soak up the image and presence of someone you love more than your own life, knowing that you will never ever see them again and you are given only a few minutes to do so.’
I leaned down closely towards my mother’s body, took hold of her hands and placed them on my face so that I could feel her touch, so that I could feel her affection towards me one last time. Then I placed her hands gently back down by her sides and just kept staring at her face, actually hoping that her eyes would open up and we could leave together because this really was just a bad nightmare after all, wasn’t it? I lowered the hood of the shroud so that I could see her face more clearly and gently moved my hand across her bald head and smoothed out her eyebrows, just as I had done so many times before during the last few months of her illness. With the tip of my finger, I stroked the bridge of her distinguished looking nose, traced the outline of her perfectly shaped lips, and finally bent over and placed the most tender of kisses on her mouth and both of her cheeks.
I turned to the woman and resigningly said, “ I’m finished now” even though I wasn’t.
I walked towards the large metal door, took off my robe, and glanced back at my mom one last time, trying to burn an imprint into my mind’s eye of her.
That was the last time I saw my mother.
February 12, 2008