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Jewish Death and Dying Rituals in Hospice

I have worked as a nurse on an inpatient hospice unit for nearly five years now. As part of my nursing practice, I try to incorporate and create meaningful rituals at the bedside when a patient dies. The majority of our patients are not Jewish; however, I find that the rituals of my faith can give comfort to my newly grieving families.

Recently, my coworker, Anne, summoned me into the room of a patient who she had been caring for who had been actively dying for our entire shift. She asked me to help her with post-mortem care. When I entered the room, I saw a beloved 95 year old patient, surrounded by her family, as she took her last breath. As the patient too her last breath, her daughter was lying in the bed holding her while her two granddaughters were caressing her hands and feet. These were all such loving gestures from the people who had been caring for the patient at home.

The family watched me intently as I gently removed the patient's urinary catheter and discontinued her intravenous line. When we announced that we were ready to give post-mortem care, they all asked if they could stay in the room. They hovered eagerly around the bed and watched my every move. I asked if they would like to help me wash their beloved grandmother and they jumped right in instinctively. They told beautiful stories and shared wonderful memories about her as we washed---soaping, drying and lotioning every inch of her ravaged, lifeless body .We created such a sacred space together.

At that moment it seemed appropriate to explain the Jewish Ritual of Chevra Kadisha. In the Jewish religion, a group of friends from the community prepare the patient's body for burial. "Cherava means friend and Kodesh means holy", I explained softly. They loved that I gave a name to the experience that we were sharing. We all had tears in our eyes.

After the undertaker removed the body, I ran into my unit manager's office to share my experience with her. I sat down in front of her desk and said, "I just had one of those magnificent hospice moments." She is not Jewish and over lunch we had once discussed the Jewish ritual of family and friends shoveling dirt on the coffin after it is lowered into the ground as a loving gesture (which is preferable to undertakers, who are strangers doing the entire task). She put down her pen and looked away from her computer screen, as I recounted my Chevra Kadisha experience.

My manager smiled and exclaimed, "I love that. Jewish rituals are so meaningful and beautiful and they make so much sense." She thanked me for sharing and since it was the end of my shift, I left the unit, reflecting on my extraordinary day as a Jewish hospice nurse, as I walked towards my car.

My Jewish rituals do make sense and I'm grateful that this Jewish mourning ritual brought comfort to a newly bereft family.

Amy Silverman Berkowitz, RN is a staff nurse at Neighborhood Hospice in West Chester, PA.


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