The years went on; the kids started to grow up. We gave away our last few disposable diapers at long last. What a different phase in so many ways. Little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems, the saying goes. I did miss the dizzy, delicious baby-on-the-hip days, much as it was a blur and hard to even believe that it had all transpired. But we savored and enjoyed the richness of our emerging people.

Finally all the kids were in school all day. It was time to branch out in new directions. A good friend regularly performed the mitzvah of taharah, “purification,” preparing aI was nurturing life, not physically or emotionally ready to deal with its end Jewish body for burial. I’d wanted to try this important task, but kept putting it off for . . . later. I was nurturing life, not yet physically or emotionally ready to deal with its end. This wasn’t one of the mitzvot that most observant people did, like keeping kosher, Shabbat, eating matzah on Passover, and so on. It was extra, voluntary—a mitzvah usually handled by more mature women because of their freer schedules, and probably also because of their said maturity.

As I rounded the corner on 50, mortality wasn’t a far-off abstract notion that had little to do with me. My mom was struggling with dementia and decline. I had lost some close friends. So when my friend Tamar asked if I might be willing to try this practice out, I gulped and hesitantly said “yes.”

I felt more or less ready, and somewhat obligated to try. Obligated, because purifying the deceased was a sacred ritual performed with care by Jews all over the world. Some unknown taharah team had done it for my grandparents and in-laws. In our small community we all shared the joys and responsibilities of Torah life, and every set of willing hands counted.

According to Jewish law and tradition, the living help the soul get ready to rest in peace, by preparing its earthly home, the body, with well-defined rituals of cleansing and dressing in simple shrouds. These rituals are done with the utmost dignity, privacy and respect. Rather than making an attractive facade for the funeral, they focus on purity and simplicity, each step suffused with deep Kabbalistic meaning.

I knew all this. In my head. But I still wasn’t sure: could I really do it?

To be honest, I wasn’t going to try it just for altruistic reasons, beautiful and compelling as they were. Helping the dead is called chesed shel emet—true kindness: You give with no possibility of being paid back. Beyond noble acts and community spirit, I wanted to expand my spiritual horizons.

Maybe I’d home in on the real essence, become a truer wife and mother, and waste less energy on trivialities; maybe I’d swallow and internalize a greater appreciation for the gift of life. Less kvetching, even. Perhaps this encounter with mortality would make me a more sensitive artist and writer.

I was now a reputedly respectable figure, a rabbi’s wife and Jewish educator busily mining the treasures of Jewish mysticism and living. Still, every now and then, I longed for really intense spiritual experiences in a Jewish way. Surely, helping a soul and its body in this transition would fit the bill. The burial committee is traditionally called the Chevra Kadisha, the holy society. With a name like that, I reckoned, they must be privy to some deep, mysterious truths.

“Good,” Tamar said briskly. “Malka told me you were thinking about it. The first time you mostly just watch, and the women will help guide you. How about tomorrow morning? We need a fourth. Na’ama will pick you up at 9. Okay?”

“Sure,” I answered, sounding more confident than I was.

Early the next morning Na’ama honked right on time. She took side roads for our half-hour trip, avoiding rush-hour traffic. We pulled into the funeral home parking lot, going around to the back. Na’ama punched the code to the rear door, and we entered the quiet building.

Several empty caskets were in the hallway. I followed the women into a utilitarian room, with a cupboard, sinks and a concrete floor. We washed our hands and put on plastic aprons and latex gloves. They examined the name of the deceased, left on a piece of paper on the counter. I recognized it: I had visited her several times during her month of decline, and knew her somewhat. Would it be easier or harder to do this on someone I had known?

No time to think.

Ruth opened the heavy door of the walk-in refrigerated room that adjoined our work room. We entered. Two newly deceased lay in that chilly room, covered with sheets. I recognized Rachel’s bulky shape.

Suddenly everyone else faded into the background. I was only aware of her and me. I took a deep breath and followed the three women. They wheeled Rachel into the preparation room. I followed, a bit nervously.

The taharah turned out to be like most of Jewish life, where searching for rarified or transcendent “spirituality” wasn’t exactly it. In fact, it was kind of off the mark.

Was it profound, quiet, hushed, spiritual? Yes and no.

The taharah was surprisingly prosaic. Earthy. Even ordinary. Na’ama, the group leader, a brisk and efficient woman, helped dispel my initial discomfort by referring to Rachel as “her.” “Move her over here,” she instructed. “Hold up her head.”

There was nothing macabre about the scene, though my subconscious offered up images from different horror movies, accompanied by a Gothic organ’s pitched tone. It wasn’t a staged “religious service” with the choir marching quietly in perfect formation. We were about to help a real woman, a she, a person. We had a job to do.

Watching my experienced partners’ faces for a cue in this new universe, I felt both humbled and relieved—humbled by their ability to just step up, assess the situation and figure out the best way to proceed, with earnest and everyday kind of caring. Relieved to see them show signs of compassion, even distress, at some of the bodily signs of the suffering Rachel must have endured these last few months. It was hard for them too. But they each took a breath and continued.

TheThe first glance at her was hard. The first touch was hard. first glance at her was hard. The first touch was hard.

The other women started washing Rachel with washcloths, keeping as much of her face and body covered as possible at any one moment, respecting her privacy, even now. Initially I stood back, watching with hands folded. I knew it would be best to jump right in, so as they turned Rachel to wash her back, I reached out tentatively and held her hand to keep it from flopping over.

The words “dead weight” and “rigor mortis” echoed through my mind. Rachel’s hand was cold, heavy and stiff. I imagined holding a living hand that had the pulse of life flowing through it. This was different.

I helped more and more, as we proceeded, following my friends’ spoken and intuited guidance. As we gently washed her body—a body that had lived and loved and borne children—it seemed almost like bathing an infant, with its total dependence, as we hovered protectively around.

Trying to talk only as necessary, we gave each other instructions in subdued, focused voices. The quiet was punctuated by coughs, sighs, the sound of water filling the buckets, the snap of latex gloves.

We took off whatever bandages we could, along with other substances that would block the purifying water, so it could cover her as completely as possible. Removing her frosted pink nail polish was like stripping away her earthly life. I imagined a kind nurse or grandchild sitting patiently with Rachel and applying this reassuring slick coat of certainty and vanity on her worn, fading hand.

That was all behind her now.

In an unbroken sequence, Na’ama, Ruth and Malka poured cascading buckets of water from the mikvah (ritual bath) from her head to toe. Tehorah hee, “she is pure,” they intoned. Over and over in almost a chant, rhythmically, asserting, defining. The sound of the water splashing against the metal table accenting the words.

Pausing at several points, Na’ama murmured several prayers and parts of Psalms, the familiar sounds of the ancient Hebrew washing over Rachel and clothing her in a cocoon of comfort. We listened, understanding the intent, even if we couldn’t translate each word. Our wishes for this woman cushioned and cloaked her as well.

Then, we gently patted her dry. Ruth brushed her hair. I watched the wet gray-white hair spring into soft, fine curls. This tender act was touching, like giving a small child that final mother’s touch.

Working together, we dressed Rachel in tachrichim, simple white linen garments: tunic, pants, gown, bonnet—each put on and tied in a special way.

We gently lowered her into the unadorned wooden casket. Fulfilling the biblical declaration, “from the dust you came, to the dust you shall return,” holes had been drilled in the bottom of the casket, allowing the body contact with the dust of the earth.

Na’ama placed a shard of pottery on each of Rachel’s eyes and on her mouth, symbolizing human frailty. Golden sand from the Land of Israel was lightly sprinkled over her. We covered Rachel’s face with a piece of the linen and asked her to forgive us for any rough or disrespectful handling. We wished her a speedy journey to Olam Haba, the World to Come.

Lifting the heavy casket cover and positioning it onto its fastening pegs felt like an act of finality. Ruth opened the door to the refrigerated room. The whoosh and blast of cold air was startling, breaking the meditative mood. We wheeled Rachel inside, where she would wait for the next step of her voyage.

Stepping out of that quiet, windowless room into daylight, time and schedules, we collected our purses and cell phones, and stepped back into our day, a sunny summer one.

The casual chatter on the drive home seemed strange after such intensity. But I soon relaxed, realizing the conversation offered a soothing transition. What we had shared did not really need to be put into words. Easing back to daily reality, I drew a blank when Malka asked me, “So, how was it for you?”

I had to stop and think. How was what? Oh, yeah. I just did a taharah. “It was okay,” I said with a quiet smile, downplaying my inner relief that I’d made it through, which melded together with my sense of accomplishment.

II felt buoyed throughout the day felt buoyed throughout the day. Catching up on the phone with my daughter Devora Leah, now a new mother, I told her, “I did my first taharah.”

She gasped. “Really?”

But it wasn’t a gasp-type thing—not of horror, and not of an “Oh wow, mystical high.” It was an ordinary, extraordinary thing to do. Rachel’s image flitted through my mind once or twice. Not morbid. Just an image of a friend I was glad to have helped.

Early Thursday, I awoke and remembered her. I said Modeh Ani, expressing thanks for the new day. No rote recital this time; I really felt it.

Rachel was in her place in G‑d’s universe, stripped down to her essence, purified of her worldly concerns. And I was thankful to be in mine: unfinished business, chaos, imperfection and all.