I recently attended a training to enable me to participate in the Jewish ritual of Taharah -- preparing the body for burial. The ritual is one practiced in the orthodox and conservative religious movements. It involves members of the community volunteering to be called whenever someone dies, showing up usually within hours of notification and in an ultimate act of kindness to the person who has died they perform the ritual. It involves lovingly washing the body, rinsing it with water, wrapping it in ritual garb and placing it in a coffin.
The Reform Jewish temple where I belong is beginning to receive requests for the ritual which is not commonly done in the Reform Jewish tradition. There is a move toward more traditional practice in many reform congregations and apparently this ritual is among those that are resurfacing.
My experience with the training evoked in me my own journey with The Actual Dance. The play that I have written and which so consumes me now is about many things. It is about what love really means. It is about family care giving. It is also about the spiritual journey of discovery of life and spirit. There is a moment in the show when I discuss my first experience with the “super natural.” I describe my experience witnessing my mother’s soul – or what in Hebrew would be called the “neshamah” her spirit -- leave her body as she took her last breath.
“That was in 1973. I have since come to understand that life exists in each of us in a tangible form and that the essence of who we are beyond the physical body exists. And I was privileged to experience that life force exit my mother at her last breath.”
The Taharah is performed on the body after the spirit has left it, yet we are taught to treat the process and the room as sacred. The body is treated with respect because it has been the vessel for the “neshamah.” Many who participate in the ritual believe that the essence or “neshamah” of the deceased will be in the room with us. Even though our training did involve a body, just a mannequin, we were training in the room within the funeral home where the actual ritual would be performed.
The Taharah ritual reminded me that The Actual Dance – not the play but the process itself of being with loved ones through their final journey – is also a ritual. In both instances one has to reconcile their own mortality and give love to the essence of someone who is or will be gone. In the case of The Actual Dance it is your life partner and friends. In the Taharah immediate family are not allowed to be present. Indeed those preforming the ritual may not have known the person during their natural life. Yet both rituals are clearly Sacred Acts of love.
The experience taught me that there are things we do in life and in death that are Sacred and sometimes we only learn that after the fact. Indeed, the acts themselves can be so difficult that we as normal human beings can't imagine doing them, yet we do. We do and in so doing we find a form of grace that we call Sacred and we feel closer to the divine.