September 23, 2019

There I Was, Dead

There I was, lying on the table pretending to be dead.  Six intensely focused people were huddled around me reciting specific liturgy from Scripture and dressing me in burial shrouds.  I tried to just be “dead weight” – loose, relaxed, and present.  As I followed their progress, I soon found myself in a bright white light.  Soon, reality was gone; all that existed for me was the light.  That’s all I could see, hear, feel, or experience.  Time stopped.  Place stopped.  Voices stopped.  Life stopped. 

I was suspended in pure, brilliant “beingness” – aware, but not limited in time, space or personality.  Everything was pure white light.

Earlier that week in the Spring of 1996, a friend of mine who was our “lay rabbi” at the local shul, had called me, suggesting that I attend a training in a nearby city about an “esoteric side of Judaism that we should check out to see if we want to do it here”.  So I went, and it turned out to be training for the Chevrah Kadishah, the Jewish team whose job it is to prepare the dead for burial.  We had a verbal training in the morning.  Now, we were doing a role-play experiential training in which the team practiced the entire procedure of the Taharah, the ritual of washing and dressing the dead.   I was playing the role of the deceased. Luckily, this time they were simulating the washing of the body and the spiritual pouring of water.  I was, after all, not dead.

Suddenly, I was “awakened” by one of the team.  I slowly opened my eyes and tried to adjust to the real world again.  It was a hard transition.  They said, “We could tell by the look on your face that you were somewhere else!” When I explained what had happened, everyone was amazed, including me.  Where I went and what happened to me are still unexplained phenomena.  It was an extraordinary experience for all of us – so much so that I returned home to start a local Chevrah Kadisha.   If a dry run could be so transformative, how much more powerful must be the real thing! 

This is how the Chevrah Kadisha in Los Alamos, NM, came into being.  (Today it is part of the Chevrah Kadisha of Northern New Mexico [CKNNM], a chevrah that includes six shuls encompassing the entire spectrum of Jewish faith traditions.)   Since that experience in 1996, my life has changed significantly because of my involvement in this holy work.  Entering into the “liminal space” that is the boundary between death and life, we touch some part of us that is eternal and communal and special, maybe even holy.  It changes how we live.  It changes how we view others.  It elevates all who are privileged and have the courage to enter.

Working with the dead, helping midwife a soul from this world to the next, transforms how we live, enlivening wonder and gratitude.  Today I look at life differently.  People are no longer just people.  They are holy souls riding in holy vehicles called bodies, attempting to make sense of a complex and often confusing world.  They are doing the best they can to figure out this thing called life.  It’s easier for me now to be more kind.  It’s easier for me to give rude customers the benefit of the doubt.  I have more respect for every aspect of this beautiful and wondrous world.

It is very special work indeed.  I invite you to learn more about it, get involved even if you never see a dead body.  This is one of the most holy activities we can participate in, and by the way, it often creates one of the greatest blessings we can receive.  For as we help souls move between holy realms of existence, we too, are blessed by them.


Rick Light has been teaching spiritual development for more than 30 years, and started the Chevrah Kadisha in Los Alamos, NM, in 1996.   In 1998 he published the first edition of Guidelines for Performing Taharah as a manual to guide the local chevrah doing its holy work (the 4th edition is now available under the title, “>Final Kindness: Honoring K’rovei Yisrael, a manual for preparing non-Jews for burial who are part of the Jewish community.  Rick is a Vice President of the North American educational organization, “>Gamliel Institute.  He continues to teach and raise awareness about Chevrah Kadisha, Taharah, and Jewish death and burial practices at the local, state, and national levels. 




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