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From One World to the Next

From One World to the Next

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She was so beautiful as she lay there on her back, perfectly still. I cradled her head in my arms as we washed her face, and then the rest of her body. We cleaned her fingernails and made sure that we rinsed all the creases and crevices, so that she be perfectly clean. Her skin was so smooth and her limbs remarkably flexible. Once she was dry, we carefully began to get her dressed, in a simple yet beautiful white outfit. With love and tears, we swaddled her in a blanket and asked G‑d to bless her.

Then we closed her casket.

Miriam Rivkah bas Yitzchak was born in 1915. She lived a full 90 years. I know nothing else about her, other than that she never had children. I don’t know how she lived and I don’t know how she died. All I know is that I was blessed with the opportunity of preparing her body to leave this world, and that my hand on hers was the last human touch she would receive in this world.

When we entered the room, I was petrifiedI had never before done a taharah (“purification”), the burial preparations done to every Jewish man, woman or child before their funeral. When we entered the room, I was petrified. I came thinking that I would only read Psalms while my friend and another woman would prepare the body. But they needed a third person, and I felt I couldn’t refuse, nor did I want to.

When we first entered, the stinging smell of cleaning products and bodies hit our faces. The room was freezing cold, and on each table, wrapped in plastic, was a body. I wanted to run, but then I saw the small flame leaping about in the corner of the room. Next to Miriam’s body was a ner neshamah (“soul candle”), lit from the moment of her passing and remaining by her side until burial, warming and illuminating her and her surroundings.

In amazement, I watched the woman who was in charge detail what needed to be done. With great love she described the tasks at hand—some simple, others both physically and emotionally difficult, all necessary.

As we began the process, the room started to change. I no longer noticed the other bodies surrounding me, as my sole focus became Miriam. To my surprise, her body, at first cold and stiff to the touch, seemed to almost respond as we held her and cleaned her. For her respect and privacy, only the part of her that was being cleansed was visible, and we made great effort to keep the rest of her properly covered. A white piece of cloth covered her face at all times, so that she not be looked at or objectified.

We said certain prayers as we worked, asking for forgiveness on her behalf, and asking her as well to forgive us if we caused her any harm or discomfort. Every step of the process was filled with meaning and depth. And every motion was intended to respect her life while preparing her for death.

After she was thoroughly washed, she then underwent a mikvah process, a spiritual and physical immersion in which the body transfers from a state of impurity to that of total purity. The Hebrew word for “impure,” tamei, comes from the same root as timtum, a state of constriction, of being blocked. Now, as she is prepared for leaving this world, she leaves behind all constrictions, all boundaries. She is finally to be freed, to be open and to understand what has until now made no sense.

As we began the process, the room started to changeHer final clothing is symbolic of the priestly garments, with white pants, a long shirt, a top coat, belt, apron, and head- and face-covering. The face is covered like that of a bride under the canopy, hidden from the outside world in order to connect with G‑d above and oneself below. And to symbolize purity and innocence, the deceased, like the bride, is dressed completely in white.

Each tie that is made in her clothing, from the belt to the cloth around her feet and that around her neck, is knotted in the form of letters that spell the name of G‑d. These garments are hand-sewn and have no pockets, to remind us that the deceased has no need nor care for material goods—for money and jewels carry no meaning in the World of Truth.

Sand from Israel is placed on her heart and below, to help her body and soul understand that its mission in this world is now over. Her heart will no longer beat, and her womb will no longer be able to bear fruit. Upon her closed eyelids pieces of clay rest, a reminder that she no longer needs her physical eyes to see, and her head lies upon a pillow of straw, elevated from the rest of her body.

When the preparations were finished, I looked with pity at the other bodies that were lying in the room. They could be identified only by a tag on the toe, and they seemed so scared, so abandoned, so alone. I wondered if anyone would come and clean their bodies and lovingly care for them the way we had for Miriam. And though they may be dressed in a fancy suit or dress, with professionally applied makeup and done-up hair, would anyone help to prepare the separation of their soul from their body? Would anyone be caring for the internal rather than just the external?

As we walked through the burial parlor, I looked at the business that death had become. The walls were adorned with various casket options, each with an opening to view the face. I thought about Miriam lying in a simple wooden box. Though beautifully dressed, no one other than her Creator would be seeing her. Her face would remain covered, as it had been since her life ended, with no makeup or false adornments.

We are so quick to drop everything for a funeral, but so reluctant and busy for a weddingLeaving the building, I wished I had met Miriam the day before she had died. I wished I had given her such time, care and love while she was still suffering in the hospital. Yet I hadn’t known her, or even about her, so I didn’t. But through meeting her right before her ascent Above, I had been taught that the limited time we have in this world is really all the time we have to care and love and do what must be done. And I wondered: How often do I take the time to bathe my own children and dress them so caringly? And how often do I pray with such intensity and emotion when I ask G‑d or others for forgiveness? And I questioned: why we are so quick to drop everything to attend a funeral, but so reluctant and busy when it comes to a wedding or other joyous occasion?

Through Miriam, I was reminded of what it means to be alive, and of what really matters when we are no longer. Now is the time to make sure we open our eyes while we can, listen to the beating of our heart, and recognize the abilities and possibilities that we have been granted. For this is our time to prepare for what really matters and what really counts, and we have no idea how much time we have to achieve that goal.

As Miriam is buried today, I pray that her soul be as relaxed and at peace as her body, and that she somehow know that even in her death she brought meaning and purpose to people she never even met.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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laurie sandpoint Idaho January 1, 2015

as a hospice nurse, in a area where being jewish is still frowned upon {sandpoint Idaho } skinheads and pretend Nazis, I am jewish but don't get to practice many jewish passings ,except the recent passing of my grandfather and grandmother,this was very comforting to read as I must bath my Christian clients but have always put my jewish roots to the process and hoped it would be approved by g-d
Reply

M.A. Montreal January 30, 2014

peace of mind I am so grateful for this article. I always wanted to know the intricate details of the tahara. Your way of explaining it brought comfort to me since her death was violent. Thank you again for the peace you have given me.
Reply

Eileen Bruskewitz Madison, Wi August 16, 2012

My mother My mother is leaving this world. Thank G-d she is not in pain. She cannot eat any more and only takes a little water and some nourishment drink.
Esther, I am so grateful to read this story knowing that my mother will have this Jewish preparation and burial.
Thanks to you and to Chabad for preparing me in this journey with my mother at the end of her life. Reply

Anonymous gurnee, il July 23, 2012

Christian, Jewish? I am amazed, as I read and learn more and more about Jewish traditions, the closeness between Orthodox Christian Arabs' traditions and those of the Jewish People. I have many Jewish friends, and they have many Arabic Christian friends, as well. Let's all get together to discuss our similarities! Reply

Anonymous philadelphia, pa, June 11, 2012

what type of box I know about the wooden pegs in a plain wooden box. Both mothers and father were buried that way. I was just wondering if my mother actually received the Taharah ritual Reply

Gavriel Eliezer ben Ze'ev Gershon Largo, FL June 10, 2012

What type of box Jewish law says only shrouds are necessary, bowever, if a box is used, it must be plain and no nails to build it. Wooden pegs are usually used, instead. They are sufficient for holding the coffin together regardless of the weight of the person within. Reply

Anonymous philadelphia, pa. June 8, 2012

final preparations what a beautiful story. I never knew it was that involved. I wonder if that is the same as I said I wanted my mother buried in shrouds and women praying by her body. I love the idea. But I still wonder about the cost. I know I want a very plain wooden box. The Jewish people are the most merciful and compassionate people thanks to our laws and commandments. Reply

Becky Pittsburgh, PA June 8, 2012

Jewish Taharah Ritual Beautifully written; I want to ensure that this Taharah ritual is a part of my burial. Reply

Anonymous January 10, 2012

Cremation Jan 10 , 2012 You are welcome to your opinion, just as i am to mine.

Toda rabbah Reply

Gavriel Eliezer ben Ze'ev Gershon Largo, FL January 10, 2012

Re: Cremation I am not giving you any "advice". The jewish position on cremation is based on two things: "mechayeh ha metim" which means resurrection of the dead and the sanctification of the human body which is given to us by HaShem and is not to be abused during life or after death. It is NOT ours to do with as we please. Reply

Anonymous January 4, 2012

Beautiful for sure Wonderful experience that you shared with us.

I still don't see anything wrong with the simple beauty of cremation. It doesn't affect the soul at all. And you can still visit the grave site and pay your respects. Having been a part of this experience with Jewish friends and being Jewish, i really haven't made up my mind. It's not something that occupies my thoughts except now and then.

I don't expect any advice since i am not seeking it. Besides, any advice on this private matter would convince me to do the opposite if it did align with my wishes. The only reason that i don't have tattoos and piercings is because it doesn't appeal to me. Great for others though. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 3, 2012

Intimations of Immortality: "still life" We need to respect our dead and we need to act in ways of honor and to promote the dignity of people who are deceased. It's important to act in all ways, with love, and to do those things we know are important. Around the world all cultures have ways of doing this, about honor, love, respect, dignity.

It could also be, the soul carries on, and there are those writing in who don't believe in the immortality of soul, and those who don't believe in reincarnation as a Jewish belief. I perceive, that there are signs there is something more, and ther are many who are writing about "signs", about "messages"that do seem to indicate their loved ones, are still extant, still conscious, but in some realm we cannot access except through these very particular, loving messages, through "signs".

I's an"intimate"and personal view, but held by many, across the Globe, that there is more going on, than we can know. This brings hope to us all. And it's really part of Messianic Promises and Writings. Reply

Tani Zarelli Ridgefield, 98642 via chabadpiercecounty.com January 2, 2012

Beautiful Article Sara, this story is magnificently written. I did not know what the Jewish custom is for burial or the respect that is given toward life. It is my hope and prayer that this article will be shared with the world and that the we would all embrace this process. Thank you for this story it is powerful. Reply

Anonymous Somewhere, USA December 6, 2011

Burial Prep My father is ill with a prognosis that is very poor. Last night we had a family meeting where it became clear the focus is not on survival, but on seeing that our father is taken care of.
I never knew the specifics of the burial preparation, it is wonderous that this article comes at this moment.
It brings me a certain comfort to know he will be so well taken care of in the end.
If this were real paper the stains would be the real tears I am shedding. Reply

Anonymous Prescott, AR/US December 3, 2011

Burial Preparations This was beautifully described. Thank you. Reply

R Lee Jacksonville, FL December 1, 2011

Final preparations Thank You for such a beautiful article It reminds me that I need to be more attentive to my mother's needs while I still have her on this side
May G-d bless you and May he continue to use this article to encourage others Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona, USA November 30, 2011

To Eliezer ben Ze'ev, Largo, Fl. Thank you. I will look into it. I am a very strong person. Through Him, never faint of heart. I know what our people have been through. I have huge faith in Hashem. He, Blessed be His Name, is the One who called me, I am listening, and loving Him more and more every day for He is Infinitely Merciful and Compassionate.
Blessings to you Reply

Gavriel Eliezer ben Ze'ev Gershon Largo, FL November 30, 2011

to anonymous in Mesa, AZ Find a chabad house (this one might be close:
3875 West Ray Road Suite 6
Chandler, AZ 85226-1751 USA
480-855-4333)
and check into what you need to do. If you are sincere about being Jewish, that is your starting point. It's not for the faint of heart, however! Reply

Gavriel Eliezer ben Ze'ev Gershon Largo, FL November 30, 2011

Thank You! I have to thank you so very much for this article. I just completed my shloshim for my mother last Shabbat, and you have given me the gift of knowing how lovingly and tenderly and with what care my mother was given by the Chevrah Kaddisha. I cried a little, but they were tears of happiness as well as sadness for my loss. May you and all who perform this mitzvah be blessed with health, happiness and long life. Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona, USA November 30, 2011

From One World to the Next This article is so inspiring! My wish is that I have a Jewish burial. Only Hashem knows my future as how my end in this world will be. I pray to him that my Jewish brothers and sisters accept me some where, somehow, either if I have to convert or if a Rabbi would accept my Jewish ancestry. So far I am trying to live a Torah life. May Hashem have mercy on me. Thank you Sarah Esther for your article. Reply

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