David Koon’s cover story this week on Ruth Coker Burks’ care for AIDS patient has sparked an enormous reaction on our Facebook page and elsewhere.
The article was posted, too, on Metafllter, a web aggregator site. There, it has drawn many comments including some testimonials from others who also were intimately involved with AIDS sufferers in the darkest days of the scourge.
“Here in Seattle, for a few years in the early 90s, I was the only person (besides any surviving friends) who would take care of family-less Jewish men who died of HIV. The local Chevrah Chadashah (burial societies, usually part of a particular congregation) would not go near their bodies due to homophobia, ignorance and fear of AIDS.
“The men would be delivered, usually by ambulance, because most undertakers who worked with the Jewish community wouldn’t accept HIV deaths. At least two guys I can recall came in the back of a station wagon or pickup truck; perhaps they died at home instead of a hospital or Bailey-Boushay AIDS Hospice. They were driven to the old yellow brick Bayit Mot (a Jewish chapel, now demolished, for receiving, washing, and guarding bodies just after death) on 12th Ave, a few blocks from the gay bar district around Pike Street. It wasn’t unusual for me to be called from my 2nd job as a bartender, and ride my motorcycle over. Although I and anyone with me (rarely Jewish, often a friend or widower of the person we were tending) had to wear gloves, rubber boots and disposable tyvek biohazard gowns, other than that we took care of them in the usual Jewish way. Aside from their abandonment (which was utterly contrary to Jewish law), the other problem was the sex of the washers should be the same as the sex of the deceased. But I was the one who both knew what to do, and wasn’t afraid to touch them.
“I had learned about Taharat (ritual washing and care of the Jewish dead) back east, where I had been close to a lot of HIV+ Jewish gay men from religiously observant backgrounds. I hadn’t lived in Seattle long enough to know who most of the men I took care of in the PNW were. Fortunately.
“After they were washed both practically and ceremonially, then dressed in their shrouds, I would wait by their side, often alone, reading or chanting Psalms. This was typically most of a day or overnight. Then they went to be buried if a place could be found; the Reform synagogue in the gayborhood donated several plots over the years. Or they were taken to the morgue or even cremated, in spite of that being prohibited both by Jewish law and post-Holocaust revulsion.
“I cannot imagine the compassion and strength this woman and her family had to both care for the dying, bury them after and be with them right nearby. The ill friends I cared for were not the strangers I cleaned, wrapped, and sang to overnight. I couldn’t have done both more than once or twice.”