Jewish Journal

The Bookends of Life

Jean Berman

August 6, 2014 | 8:00 am

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The call came from a woman I liked and had learned from: would I consider participating in a Taharah – a what? Someone had died and she was spearheading a new initiative to offer the traditional Jewish ceremony of purification. I was hesitant but open, and after more conversation decided I would give it a try. I felt unsure – what would it be like to cleanse a dead body? Would there be a smell? Could I handle it or would I want to leave?

The woman who had called me led the team as we met together in a room of a local funeral home. She asked for questions and feelings, which we discussed. When we were ready, our leader set a sacred tone into which I relaxed. Praying to the soul of the deceased woman, we let her know our intention of offering honor, respect and comfort, and asking forgiveness in advance for anything we did or didn’t do that missed the mark. That was reassuring.

The sights and smells of the funeral home were unfamiliar and felt challenging. What was I doing there? As one woman was directed to begin reading the prayers for the ceremony, the rest of us gently, and with reverence began to prepare the body of the deceased. The liturgy was mostly unfamiliar to me. We were all learning. We debriefed afterwards, talking about and giving thanks for the opportunity. I left with deep gratitude for the sacredness of the experience.

During my second Taharah, I found myself feeling how much this was like welcoming a newborn baby with tenderness and care. I imagined and wished that all those in the process of dying and everyone on Earth could have this experience. I sent wishes of peace and blessing out to those in the dying process everywhere, that they might feel held, comforted and honored. I had a deep sense within that I was born to do this work.

Over time the spiritual experience of Taharah and Shmirah have deepened for me. I have immersed myself in learning and sharing aspects of these sacred traditions with others.

Jean Berman speaks and leads workshops on Honor and Comfort: The Jewish Way of Death and Mourning, Care of the Newly Dead – An Inquiry into Intuition and Tradition, and How Death Enhances Life: Heightening our Awareness. She enjoys walks in nature, kayaking and playing ukulele, and lives on Peaks Island, Maine. She is a student of the Gamliel Institute

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Death and funerals have long been taboo subjects. From preparing the deceased for burial to choosing a cemetery, many Jewish end-of-life rituals are unknown until experienced...

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