From One World to the Next
By Sara Esther Crispe
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.
I 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.
BY SARA ESTHER CRISPE