One Sunday when I lived in Vilnius, Lithuania, the Chabad rabbi in the city, Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky and I visited the ancient city’s Jewish cemetery to perform a taharah—the ritual washing and cleansing of the deceased.

Boris (or Ber, as he had been named at his brit milah) was 90 years of age when he passed away. Like many Soviet Jews, life in the USSR had denied him any Jewish education. He had not lived as a Jew, at least in any overt sense. None of his children were Jewish, and there was no one to say Kaddish for him. Yet shortly before his passing, he asked to be buried as a Jew.

I had never done taharah before. I'd also never seen a lifeless body.

I had been around death a good deal during that year in Eastern Europe, it was an unavoidable reality; I had paid my respects at many of the mass graves that are the resting places of at least half a million Jews. But I had never seen death in all its rawness.

Graves are places of silence and deep introspection. They have a unique atmosphere, especially the graves of hundreds of thousand innocent men, women and children killed merely because they were Jewish.

But standing in the presence of a dead person, undressing him and washing him, was a different experience altogether.

We entered the side room of the mortuary, and donned medical scrubs and plastic gloves. The body was cold, heavy and stiff with rigor mortis. We worked in almost complete silence, only whispering when the need arose. How can you talk, gab or laugh in front of the vessel that mere hours before had held a living, breathing soul?

My legs felt cold, and my mind was dancing in a million places, only skimming over the facts at hand.

The body looked the same as that of any living person. Except for a slightly pale tint, it seemed as if Ber could wake at any moment. Yet we knew: The soul has left it, and in time, the body will return to the elements.

There was something very tender in it all—washing the body, dressing it in clean white shrouds and placing it gently in its coffin. Care was taken not to turn it over on its back, so as not to embarrass the human form, made in the image of G‑d.

Ber was moved into the coffin and then brought to the waiting crowd.

We buried him, shoveling the soft, red Lithuanian dirt as it fell with a thump upon the casket. I shoveled for as long as I could until the workers took over—three elderly, blue-eyed gentiles.

The casket was completely covered. One of the members of the Vilna Chabad House said Kaddish.

As we left, his progeny rushed forward to cover the grave with flowers and candles in an ancient Slavic rite.

Shortly before his passing, Boris had asked to be buried as a Jew, and his wish was fulfilled. He was interred in the same cemetery as the famed Gaon of Vilna and many other great Jews of the city once known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.”

Walking in the former Vilna Ghetto
Walking in the former Vilna Ghetto