(From an e-mail I sent to my family:)

I survived my new mitzvah today. It was trying at times, but satisfying. Today, I helped prepare the body of an old man whom I had never met for his funeral.

I wasn't sure how it would go. When I was driving to the mortuary, I couldn’t stop asking myself if I would be able to go through with it. I've never been good with doctors. Needles and blood make me feel faint. How would I be able to handle seeing the body of a dead person? In the end, I just decided that I had been asked because there was a need, and therefore I would do it.

I had asked a couple of people for advice the day before. One person told me, "It’s the greatest mitzvah, because there's a 100% guarantee that this person will never, ever repay you for the favor you are doing them." I think the thing that finally convinced me was when I found out that if I actually went through with it, I would be the third generation in my family to help in this unique way.

I don’t know whether it was intentional or not, but I arrived a little late. The receptionist directed me to the room where the body was being prepared and off I went. I found my way, stuck my head in the doorway, and immediately saw people I knew from shul around a draped body on a table. I took a deep breath, and walked in. I was told how to put on a gown and gloves, shown what brachot to make, and given my job of filling the laver for the person who did the initial washing. No discussions, no opportunity to ask questions, and no chance to back out.

I didn’t actually see the body for a few minutes so I just focused my attention on my small job. After a few minutes, my mind seemed to grasp that whatever my fears might have been, there was nothing to worry about.

The thing that initially struck me was how much the physical body changes when the neshamah (soul) is gone. It seems to literally shrink. It was like looking at a balloon the day after a party—slightly shriveled, resting on the floor, a poor reminder of the floating ball of vibrant color you and your kids played with the previous day.

Every time I started to think this way, I was careful to remind myself that this was a man—someone's father, brother, uncle or husband. At that point, I became more embarrassed about what we were doing than anything else. We did our best to maintain an atmosphere of modesty and kept him covered as much as possible. Conversation during the process was kept to an absolute minimum, mostly just instructions about what to do.

It was so beyond the range of my experience that I didn't know what to expect, and even during the process, I still wasn't sure about my own feelings. I just focused on doing what had to be done. There were only a couple of times where a smell would bother me, or seeing how the body reacted after being moved a certain way caught me off guard. By the end of the hour, I was as involved as everyone else there.

It wasn't until after we had dressed him in a shroud and placed him into the casket that it suddenly became familiar to me. The mechanical aspect was done, and it struck me once again that others who knew him would be seeing only the casket. The four of us from the Chevra Kaddisha (I guess I have to include myself now) were the last to really see him in his current state—a body without a soul. It was truly a sad realization.

Oddly enough, just yesterday I learned in Talmud that the soul doesn't completely leave the body until the last shovel-full of dirt is placed on the grave. I believe that this is the reason we are so careful as we go through the process of preparing the body. If it feels like someone is watching—it's because someone is, and it's very personal to him or her.

They don't have it easy either. They are experiencing something new and are in a place that they have never been before. In many cases, they may be without pain or physical limitations for the first time in a long time. While I'm sure that it’s a welcome relief, I imagine that it's similar to the feeling you have when you are driving and think you might be lost. Do I keep going and hope it turns out OK, or try to turn back and get some help? Unfortunately, turning back is not an option in this case.

As I walked behind the hearse and focused on fulfilling the mitzvah of escorting the dead, I was struck by what I had done. I have been to a number of funerals and been among the mourners. There, everyone focuses on dealing with the living, because that is whom the funeral is truly for. Having been one who focuses on the dead, and after escorting this man as he left the mortuary, I have a new perspective.

I will probably repeat this experience in the future. It was not easy, and I'm sure it won't be next time, but I guess it's not supposed to be. I can't say that I recommend this for everyone. It is mentally, emotionally, and to a lesser degree, physically challenging. At the same time, it’s one of those things that falls into the category of "you have to do it once."

I have more respect than ever for the people of the Chevra Kaddisha and other similar organizations. They have no desire for glory, recognition, fame or fortune. They don’t advertise in newspapers and magazines for support or members. They are most likely the people in your town who are most focused on doing as many mitzvot as possible. I would urge you to recognize their dedication and selflessness by making a contribution to one of the following organizations; either in their own merit or the merit of someone you may know who has benefited from their services.