Stuart Miller lives his Jewish faith by caring for the dead

Stuart Miller is seen at his home in Groton on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
Stuart Miller is seen at his home in Groton on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Groton — Facing death isn’t something many people do voluntarily.

But for 64-year-old Stuart Miller, the Judaism that always has been part of his core identity calls him to take on what many would consider the hardest of tasks: helping prepare bodies for burial according to the ancient tradition of his faith.

“This is seen as one of the most important and unselfish acts of kindness we can bestow to any human being,” said Rabbi Rachel Safman of Congregation Beth El in New London, where Miller and his wife, Sue, are active members. “This is an activity done completely anonymously, on someone who by definition cannot repay them. It’s the most sincere form of altruism.”

For the past eight years, Miller, a retired investigator for the federal government and now a part-time student transportation driver, has been one of a small group in the synagogue’s Chevra Kadisha, or burial society. When a member of the congregation dies, trios of men or women matching the gender of the deceased are contacted immediately to gather at a local funeral home within the next 24 hours to perform the Tahara — the ceremony of washing, dressing and praying over the body.

Just last Wednesday, he got the call.

“It’s drop everything and come,” Safman said.

They will be the last ones to see the deceased before the casket is closed for the Jewish funeral, but their identities will remain unknown to the mourners.

“You’re giving a gift for which you cannot be thanked,” Miller said. “It’s not an easy thing to do. You have to be respectful. You’re not supposed to turn your back on the body. At the end, we say a prayer asking for forgiveness from the deceased” for any ways they fell short in carrying out the Tahara ritual.

Miller grew up in a devout Jewish family in New Haven, inspired by his mother and uncles to remain faithful after his father died when Miller was 7. The acts of charity he’s done throughout his life — from being a regular blood donor to donating to needy families to hosting Navy sailors for Thanksgiving — are his way of honoring his father’s memory and showing gratitude to God. He and his wife said they raised their two children, now adults, to follow that same ethic.

“God put us here to make the world a better place,” Miller said. “I just try to be a good person.”

Safman said congregation members specifically are chosen to be part of the Chevra Kadisha, then learn the rituals during an apprenticeship period.

“It’s a very demanding job,” she said. “It’s one we don’t entrust to just anybody.”

The ritual, she said, expresses the Jewish teaching that the mortal body is God’s first gift to the soul.

“It’s the vehicle that carries the soul through life,” she said.

The way the body is washed then dressed in white burial shrouds is part of showing the deceased the same dignity, respect and love they should have been shown in life, Safman said. But that requires those performing the ritual to be able to put their own feelings of discomfort aside, and to conduct the ceremony as though the deceased were present and watching them.

“We don’t die beautifully,” she said. “Dying involves the body shutting down, often after an extended period of disease and decrepitude. This is the reality of death. It’s very challenging to face that.”

At the funeral home, Miller and the others in the Chevra Kadisha dress in gowns provided by the funeral home, then cover their heads with yarmulkes before beginning the ceremony. Water is poured in a circle around the body, which is then washed and patted dry.

“It does become emotional,” Miller said. “I try not to let it overwhelm me. I try to focus.”

Difficult as it can be, Miller said he believes the families of the deceased are comforted by the service of the Tahara.

“It means their loved one is being taken care of, even in death, that somebody cares,” Miller said. “It’s an important aspect of final closure. It’s important, psychologically, I believe, to know that when I die, my body will be taken care of.”

j.benson@theday.com

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