On Monday morning the phone rang. The caller ID showed an unfamiliar number, but something told me I should pick it up. It was a dear friend, calling from a borrowed number. Her parent had just died. After I offered what comfort I could, she asked for my help. As the day unfolded, it became clear to both of us how I could be of service.
This morning -- the day which would become Yom Kippur -- I dropped my son off at preschool and then drove over the mountains. I met my friend there, and embraced her, and embraced the family. In their living room, overlooking beautiful woods and hills, I explained the traditional process of taharah, the bathing and blessing and dressing of the body of someone who has died. (See Facing Impermanence, 2005.) I explained the process as I have learned it, and I explained how we would make it work today here in this private home.
Ordinarily it is the chevra kadisha, the volunteer burial society, who lovingly prepare the body of someone who has died. In my experience, this is done at a local funeral home. In my town we don't have a Jewish funeral home, but we have a very friendly non-Jewish funeral home where the proprietors know our customs and welcome us into their space for this holy work. I suspect the same is true in the Pioneer Valley where I spent this morning. And the local chevra kadisha had offered to provide this service at the funeral home they work with...but the family wanted to do it themselves, at home.
Most sources indicate that family members do not participate in taharah because it would be too difficult, too painful. But this family yearned to do taharah themselves, there in the serene home where their loved one had died and had been kept company ever since. In our chevra kadisha, we have permitted family participation from time to time. When someone feels the deep need to care for their loved one in this way, we do not say no. Particularly in a case where a spouse or child has been caring physically for a loved one during illness, sometimes they need to tenderly offer this one last touch in order to say goodbye.
My friend's family didn't want to involve a funeral home or to enter the impersonal space of whatever room the local chevra kadisha uses for this process, and they didn't want to entrust their loved one to strangers, even the nicest of strangers. So together we centered ourselves, and went up the curving wooden stairs to the bedroom.
We said prayers to prepare ourselves. We spoke to the meit, the body of the person who had died, asking the neshamah -- the soul -- to forgive us if we happened to do anything improper or to offend in any way. Moving slowly and gently we washed the meit clean with washcloths, which we dipped into a beautiful ceramic bowl of warm water. My friend wept, from time to time. We offered one another words of comfort as needed.
We poured a stream of water, our symbolic mikveh, as I spoke the words which remind us that the soul is pure. And then we gently dried and dresssed the body in tachrichim, the white linen shroud in which every Jew is buried. Rich or poor, male or female, we are all alike in the end. Slowly the transformation took place: from the shell of a human body which had contained life to a white-bundled figure, arms and legs and head and torso all covered in white.
The last step was swaddling in a white linen sheet -- like the way parents swaddle newborns, I said, and my friend laughed through her tears, remembering my newborn son and how he would only sleep if swaddled (and sometimes not even then!) With the help of a few local friends, the meit was placed in the beautiful simple pine coffin -- handmade, sanded smooth as silk. A bit of earth from the home garden was sprinkled inside, a connection to the soil in which this beloved soul had thrived.
I left that home feeling lighter than I had when I'd entered. Feeling centered and connected. Feeling connected to my friend and her family -- to my own family -- to all the generations of my ancestry, and to my son and the generations I hope will follow -- most of all to God.
Yom Kippur can be understood as a day of rehearsal for one's own death. We wear white, like the shrouds in which we will be buried. We eschew food and drink, as we will do when our physical lives have ended. We recite a vidui prayer very like the one recited on the deathbed.
On Yom Kippur we try as hard as we can to make teshuvah, to correct our course and shift our alignment so that our actions, our emotions, our thoughts, and our spirits are aligned with holiness. We try to repair our relationships with ourselves, with each other, with God. We try to relinquish the emotional and spiritual calluses which protect us in ordinary life, and to go deep into awareness of our mortality and deep into connection with something beyond ourselves.
I can't think of any better way to prepare myself for the awesome task of leading my community in prayer throughout Yom Kippur than what I was blessed to do this morning. When I don my all-white linen garb tonight, I will remember the feeling of these tachrichim beneath my fingers this morning. When I invite my community to join me in experiencing this holiday as a reminder of our mortality, I will think of this family and their encounter with death.
And when I lead us in davenen tonight and tomorrow, I will do so in the hope that our prayers will rise to the Holy Blessed One as do the prayers of these mourners, and that God will grant compassion and healing to them and to us. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.