Leah Damski

Coffin Birth

It was raining the day I performed my first burial cleansing. I remember because it hardly ever rains in Jerusalem and because once you’ve cleaned a dead body and prepared it for burial, you can never unsee what you saw.

Everyone who lives within the old pock-marked stones of the Old City walls knows Mrs. Butrov. The head of the Jewish women’s division of the burial society in our community for the past thirty years, she recruited a dedicated group of ladies to do the cleansing. But they were always looking for women without children, like me, since they were frequently called in to do last minute jobs, usually at night.

“You realize this is a crazy undertaking?” Josh asked me the night I got the call. Mrs. Butrov said an elderly lady passed of natural causes, and thought it might be a good first experience for me.

“I understand. But it’s just something I’ve always thought about doing. It’s been in the back of my mind for years, like an annoying child tugging at my sleeve.”

“Okay,” he said. “If you think you can handle it emotionally.”  He went back to his schnitzel, sawing through it slowly, as if pondering my decision.

“Mrs. Butrov said it’s like anything else of this nature. It’s difficult the first few times, and then you get desensitized. You just focus on the task at hand.”

Josh nodded. “If anyone can handle it, it’s you. You’re not afraid of a little death and blood. After what we’ve been through, jeez.”

I wasn’t sure if he was joking or referring to the hundreds of needles I’d stuck myself with during fertility treatments over the years. All the miscarriages.

“You’re rock solid,” he said. Then he licked his full lips, just as he had done after dinner each night of the eight years we’d been married and childless.

 

A couple hours later, I ventured out into the drizzle and walked down the block to the funeral chapel where Mrs. Butrov waited. I squeezed my hands, nervous about my first cleansing, yet I understood that it was quite literally a dirty job that someone had to be selfless enough to do.

I knocked lightly at the side entrance, just as Mrs. Butrov had told me to. She opened the door and peeked out her round face, wrinkled like a peach pit.

Shalom, Mira,” she said, and beckoned me inside with squishy fingers.

We scrubbed our hands and arms all the way to our elbows, the way doctors and nurses do before surgery, then put on latex gloves. She led me to the prep room where a body lay on a gurney, covered with a thin blue sheet. My gut cinched.

Mrs. Butrov explained each step as we went, the filling of the bins with soapy warm water, she showed me the closet where all the washcloths and other supplies were kept. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the blue sheet, which she then lifted quickly, exposing a peaceful looking old lady dressed in a simple white shroud. Her eyes seemed to have drifted slightly open and they looked sunken, like two brown raisins pressed into a cookie. Mrs. Butrov swiftly closed them back with the flick of two fingers.

“Follow my lead.”  Mrs. Butrov dipped her washcloth into a soapy bin, wrung it out, and began lifting and scrubbing limp body parts. “I’ll start at the bottom, you start at the top.”

As I began working the cloth, I relaxed. “This isn’t so bad.”  I was relieved she would be washing the private parts.

“Just wait till you get someone who was in an accident.” She grabbed the ritual washing cup and poured water over the body in the prescribed way, tipping it backwards over the body. “Sometimes they come in all bloody, or missing body parts. This is one of the simple cases.”

I shivered as I slid the cloth over a pasty elbow. I thought I could do that if I had to. I felt a surge of energy and confidence that told me that I knew I could. Somehow, as I scrubbed under the woman’s nails, freeing flecks of dirt, the experience of washing the dead made me feel alive.

 

By the time I got home, Josh was sleeping and the apartment was dark and silent. I could barely see my way to the bedroom, the coasting clouds having stalled in front of the moon that usually beamed through our balcony doors. I went into the spare bedroom and stood in the doorway, longing for a sleeping child to check on, sighing at the number of times I had done this before. So many times, Josh and I stayed up till the wee hours, dreaming about the family, the world we would create together. Where the crib and changing table would go. Which pediatrician had the best reputation. Who would take the first shift of late-night feedings.

And then we had purchased a crib. It was the one thing we allowed ourselves to buy when we found out I was pregnant after three years of trying. But three months later the baby was gone. Then the crib was too. And five years later there was still no baby and no crib.

We gave up so long ago, I hadn’t revisited the fact that I still had a few more years left for a medical miracle to happen. But the thought of going back to doctors and the daily needle pricks, shots, medications, and all the emotion that went along with it, was as unappealing as it was six years ago when we decided to take a break. Well, I was the one who decided.

I heard Josh moving in the next room. “Mir?  Is that you?”

 

The next few cleansings I did were similar situations, old ladies who passed away peacefully who Mrs. Butrov thought would be good for me as a beginner, not too emotionally draining. The closest I came to shock was when I flipped over a lady’s arm to find the imprint of concentration camp numbers tattooed into her flesh. I froze.

“Yeah, we get that from time to time,” Mrs. Butrov said. She shook her head and the fat from her arms flapped as she scrubbed a leg held up by her other hand. “Sorry. If I had known, I would have asked someone else to do it tonight.”

“I’m fine,” I said. I swallowed and continued my damp swipes. “Really, I can handle it. I’m getting used to it.”

She looked up at me with her wise, doughy face and I forced a tiny smile.

“I’ve been praying for you,” she said. She stopped her washing.

My heart skipped. When people said these kinds of things, I knew why. In our community, if you were married eight years without kids, people prayed on your behalf.

“Thanks,” I said, and picked up a hand, beginning to work on the dead woman’s nails with a file. “But you don’t have to do that. We stopped trying long ago.”

“That doesn’t mean people can’t pray for you,” she said. “Or that you can’t keep praying for yourself. In this world, you never know which prayers or actions are going to have cosmic effects. Just look at what you’re doing right now. You don’t know where such selfless acts can take you spiritually. You’re doing the highest act of service possible.”

I felt a look of doubt wash over my face.

“You’re voluntarily performing an act of kindness for someone who can never repay you.”

I nodded and dipped my cloth in the soapy bin. I felt myself working a little faster after that, with a little more drive toward the task at hand. The words swirled in my mind the rest of that evening and into the night.

 

When I got home, Josh was waiting up for me. He put down his newspaper.

“How was it? Anything noteworthy?”

I sat down beside him and told him about the concentration camp numbers on the lady’s arm.

“That must’ve been intense.” He took my hand into his. The warmth from his hand radiated and for a moment, I felt a long-forgotten emotion surface. Something that spoke of an old wound, not healed, but hopeful.

Then I told him about what Mrs. Butrov said about the praying.

“I was thinking lately,” he said, “Maybe it’s time we go back to fertility treatments. It’s been awhile and we still have a little time left to try.”

I shook my head and he pulled his hands away from mine.

“I don’t think I can go through that again. And on the off chance that I did get pregnant, the fear of loss would be too overwhelming and probably affect the pregnancy.”

“Mira, we’d deal with that if we needed to but that’s not a reason not to try. This would be our last shot. Please think about it.”

It felt like we were replicating a conversation we’d had a million times before and the familiar feeling of wanting to fold up into myself came coursing back.

As I went to the bedroom to get ready for bed, I recalled the dreams I had had for years after we lost the baby. Over and over again, I dreamed we had a girl who brought us complete happiness. In the dream, she grew steadily through childhood until she was old enough to be a mother herself. Then, Josh and I were old, and our daughter was pregnant. That’s where the dream always ended, but I remember there was fear on my part with her pregnancy. I was always scared, apprehensive, nervous for what was to come. The dreams finally stopped when we quit pursuing fertility treatments.

 

“I’m sorry this is so last minute.”  Mrs. Butrov’s raspy voice came through the phone line a few weeks later. “I called several other people first, but no one else can do it tonight.”

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Butrov,” I said. “I’m available. No problem.”

“But I have to warn you that it’s a complicated case. One of the most difficult scenarios that exists.”

I said I felt I was ready, that I could handle it, and that I’d be there at nine. But when I walked into the prep room, my arms and hands scrubbed, my latex gloves snapped tightly over my hands like I had done this a million times, I stopped short in front of the sheet-covered body. It was misshapen, a mound of bulge from the middle, peaking at the tip of the belly. I knew it was a pregnant woman and I could feel my eyes get wide.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Butrov said. “Like I said, I tried to find someone else.”

“No. No, it’s okay,” I said. I gripped the chair next to me to get my bearings. I felt a tear rise in my eye. “She and her baby need to be prepared for burial just like anyone else.”

Mrs. Butrov nodded and removed the sheet. The loveliness of the young woman underneath sucked the breath out of me. Her glowing, brown complexion, even in death, was the backdrop for perfect facial features, and the longest, most graceful eyelashes I had ever seen. Her small, pink mouth was slightly open and a few strands of her chestnut hair lay across her face. I felt compelled to brush them away, a segue into the cleansing ritual I knew I had to perform.

My tears mixed with the soapy water as I ran the cloth over her smooth, large abdomen. The cloth seemed compelled to linger there as I circled over and over, atop the protruding belly button, down the sloping sides of her mound and back up to the top again.

“What did she die of?” I asked.

“Blood clot in the lungs.”

I stopped my washing for a second, then continued. I looked up again When Mrs. Butrov left the room. She came back with a large bottle of fluid connected to a long tube.

“What’s that?” I asked, afraid of what the answer might be.

“This is part of the protocol for the burial prep of a pregnant woman. We have to pump some chemical preservatives into her uterus to replace the loss of bodily and amniotic fluid that’s already started to occur. We do it here in the prep room because it makes a bit of a mess. Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll take care of this part.”

My open jaw felt suspended in air. “Why?”  I braced myself.

She began to set up the bottle. “The intra-abdominal gasses formed by a decomposing body cause pressure to build on the uterus and can expel the baby. Before we had the knowledge we do today, coffin births were fairly common.”

I felt myself mouthing the words “coffin birth” and something shot through me like the shrill cry of a newborn. I watched Mrs. Butrov work, her purposeful movements smooth and almost Godly. As she worked, I settled into the idea, accepting it as a fact of life. I continued my nail trimming. I brushed the lady’s smooth hair and lay it softly around her face. Every few seconds I glanced over at Mrs. Butrov pumping the fluid bag.

When I had done everything I was supposed to, I went back to her abdomen and washed it once more, sad for this woman and the baby she never got to meet, hurting for her husband who lost them both.

And I almost felt as if I had slipped into a meditative state, as if performing this service for the woman had somehow cosmically affected my own life. I thought about my recurring dream and something triggered it to play out in my head. I went through infancy and childhood with Josh and our daughter who grew to have her own baby. The dream didn’t end with a troublesome pregnancy. The baby was born. This time, there was a healthy child born and it seemed that life had released its grip on the elderly version of me.

I opened my eyes and took a cloth to pat the woman dry. She glowed like a renegade star in in the black Jerusalem sky.

I thought about what Mrs. Butrov said about doing the ultimate act of kindness, an act where the person you were helping could never help you back. They could never repay you for what you did. But it wasn’t true.

As I finished my task, I thought about Josh. I hoped he was still up. I hoped he’d be on the couch waiting for me. I needed to hear his voice. To feel the warmth of his hands. To make him happy.

I pulled the blue sheet over the body and the mound of what usually signifies the coming of new life in our world, and I whispered, “Thank you.”

Comments
  1. rayzel on

    Leah damski, beautiful. Felt I was right there…

  2. Marilyn Burg on

    Wow! Beautifully written and so captivating!

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