I read a very moving account of death, or rather dealing with the dead, today at Velveteen Rabbi. In her post Facing impermanence Rachel shares a very intimate encounter with taharah (the traditional Jewish process for preparing the deceased for burial). Rachel was asked to help prepare the body of an elderly lady for burial. This process is typically performed by well respected people of the deceased’s community. The following are some snippets of Rachel’s account of the taharah. While there initially is a sense of apprehension you find that as the taharah proceeds she is “strangely calm”.
It’s one thing to contemplate why the Torah tells us that touching a corpse makes one tamei but the act of preparing a dead body for burial is the ultimate act of taharah; it’s another thing to face that reality in an embodied way.
Jewish tradition teaches that the body of someone who has died must be treated like the sacred vessel that it has been, and pre-funeral practices grow out of the principle of kavod ha-meit, honoring the dead.
Sprinkle sand from the Mount of Olives on her eyes, then don the facecloth and bonnet. Tie every set of strings so that the loops form a letter shin, representing Shaddai, a name of God.
The sand we trickled onto her eyelids was pale and golden, and somehow that was the moment when the irreversibility of the process hit me. It reminded me of the morning blessing praising God Who removes sleep from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids. Some say the Jerusalem sand is used so that the first thing she “sees” in the World to Come will be the soil of the holy land, but to me it felt like we were providing the flipside to that morning blessing. In this embodied life we thank God for opening our eyes; now we were marking the closing of her physical eyes. Maybe her neshama no longer needed eyes to see.
I felt strangely calm throughout. It was strange, seeing a body with no soul in it; stranger still to wash her, an act that seemed impossibly intimate; but I was okay. I felt an outpouring of tenderness, occasionally giving in to the impulse to stroke her hair or her arm, thinking, “it’s okay, dear. We’re here. You’re okay.”
A little awkwardly we lifted her and placed her atop the white sheet we had laid over the plain pine box, and wrapped the sheet over her, and then, suddenly, out of the blue, I was shaking with silent tears. I leaned on the edge of the coffin of a woman I had never known, and understood what we had done for her, and wept and wept.
I am struck by the contrast in the intimacy with which this community does this for each other versus the sterile, impersonal approach of most Christian funeral preparations. We hire a professional, with their catelogs of trinkets who likely never met the deceased, to preserve the body and attempt to present the body in such a way to appear familiar to loved ones. We parade by the casket telling ourselves, absent from the body … present with the Lord, paying our last respects to the deceased body laying there. This seems to me somewhat convoluted and a bit disjointed. Certainly not the “final act of respect towards someone who cannot conceivably repay it” as is the intention of the taharah.