Awful or Awe-full? Facing Death Head On
So you don’t want to talk about it. You’re not alone. It’s one of those taboo topics that nobody is willing to get close to. In fact, it is so intense that most people run from even the thought of talking about it, hoping that denial will suffice. Yet it is one of those things that catches you off guard. When you least expect it, it pops up right in your face! Usually it’s not only unexpected, but also shocking. We are not only unprepared to deal with it, but since we never talk about it, we can’t even express what’s going on. It’s just awful.
In fact, it’s truly awe-full. Once we allow ourselves the honor and respect necessary to actually face death, we discover that it is just a hair’s-width away from us all the time. In fact, it’s just the backside of what we call life. Always there, always waiting, always present, never far away. And, this thing we call life, as you may recall, so very full of beauty, so full of awesome wonder and miracles that we could call it magic, is, at its core, completely whole, and thus completely encompasses death. So, by its nature, death is just as holy, just as full of awesomeness as is life. Yet, since we deny ourselves the honor and respect necessary to actually even acknowledge the existence of death in this death-denying society, we are not prepared or even aware enough to recognize this awesomeness when it comes by.
There are a few people, however, for whom this is not true. These are special people indeed. They are the ones who put their egos aside, roll up their sleeves, and humble themselves to serve the dead. These special people are members of the Chevrah Kadisha, the anonymous people in the Jewish community whose job it is to prepare the deceased for burial. And what a job it is! These strong and wise people silently wash the body of the deceased, not unlike one washes a newborn baby – gently and respectfully cleaning them, getting them ready as for their wedding day. Then comes the spiritual cleansing, in which water is poured over the body simulating emersion into a running mountain stream – mayim chaim – living waters of purification. Next the body is dried and dressed in simple garments that resemble those worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem. Everyone is dressed the same way. Each of us is equally holy in the eyes of G-d. We are all, each of us, worthy of the respect and honor the taharah ritual provides. Finally, the chevrah team places the prepared body into the aron, the waiting casket into which is sprinkled holy earth from Israel. The accompanying readings and prayers are rich and beautiful and respectful.
Such a simple procedure – yet what a difference it makes. It changes everything! For the deceased, the soul floating in the room, now disembodied and confused, the taharah provides comfort, midwifing them from this world to the next. For the family, it provides assurance that their loved one was treated with respect and dignity. And, for these special people, those who face death head-on, who walk into that room and roll up their sleeves, for these people the benefit is beyond words. How can you describe what it feels like to midwife a soul between realms of existence? How can you put into words what it’s like to feel the gratitude in the room as you see the body radiate once it’s all prepared and in the casket? How can you describe the aliveness one feels when one comes out of that taharah room and back into life, back into the sunshine, where every leaf, every cloud, every hair, every raindrop shines with the vibrancy of being alive?
And, did I mention gratitude? Once you have participated in a taharah ritual, you will never take life for granted again. Instead you tend to walk in continual gratitude, knowing that death is right there, just on the other side of the veil, waiting silently. What a great honor it is to be alive!
In summary, those of us who do this work tend to appreciate every aspect of life. We also tend to feel more respect for life, for others, for ourselves, and sense our blessings to a much greater extent than we ever did before. So, if you want to really enjoy living, that is, truly appreciate and revel in the glory of the holy miracle that is your living, thinking, breathing body and mind, all you need to do is to face death.
One way to do that is by joining your local Chevrah Kadisha. It’s the Jewish group of people who can never be thanked by those they help, yet who form the foundation for the life of the community by supporting its death. This work includes a large spectrum of activities, only a few of which involve direct contact with dead bodies. So if you are a bit squeamish about such things, perhaps consider becoming involved with shmirah, guarding the dead between death and burial, or with the organizational aspects of Chevrah Kadisha, or possibly helping with meals of consolation or arranging minyanim during which families are able to say Kaddish.
Life is short. We must use our blessed time wisely. I cannot think of a more holy way to spend time than midwifing a soul between realms! What about you?
Rick Light has been teaching spiritual development in various ways for more than 30 years and has been studying and practicing meditation for more than 40 years. He is a leader in the community of those who prepare Jewish bodies for burial, has published four books in this regard, and for 18 years was President of a local Chevrah Kadisha he started in 1996. He is on the Board of Directors of Kavod v’Nichum, is a faculty member of the Gamliel Institute, and continues to lecture and raise awareness about Jewish death and burial practices at the local, state, and national levels. For more information see
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