She killed herself under a tree in the wilderness, with the intention of not being found until well after the process of bodily death was complete. Days later I stood in front of her casket.
In the final few months of her life she sought out a Jewish community and declared immense gratitude for having found some solace from her depression through attending sporadic services. Surrounded by a very open, welcoming and supportive congregation, she spoke from a place of vulnerability that was otherwise masked by her reserved demeanor, rumpled jeans, and sandals. She spoke about the deep depression within which she found herself. Her illness, the specifics unknown to the congregants, deprived her of sleep and, therefore, peace of mind.
Her loneliness was quite apparent, so various members of the congregation banded together and reached out to offer friendship through homemade food, companionship, and attentive, compassionate ears. This attention seemed to fade in and out as their energy was diverted by their own busy lives. Still, she knew that if she reached out someone would surely be there with her. In the end, those who befriended her knew that they had done the best they could, enabling her to feel love before the inevitable happened.
I stood in front of her casket, alone, depleted after an entire week of emotional interface with families, logistical juggling with the members of our chevrah and the funeral home, as well as being the sole organizer of lengthy seamless shmirah and three taharot.
Due to the extent of decomposition and other natural consequences of lying in the wilderness for days, as well as having undergone an autopsy, we were unable to perform a taharah, or even open the body bag. Thinking I was fulfilling an important closure, yet feeling that it was a mere formality, I began to recite the Chamol, the prayer asking God for compassion and mercy for the deceased. Since she was not receiving a taharah, it was the only prayer that I could recite from our manual. I then read it in English, and was astounded by the relevance of the words to her particular life. Consequently, for the first time I actually connected the liturgy with the meitah/deceased woman. At the same moment as I was feeling that connection, I felt and saw the last part of her soul rise up. It was in the form of a jagged, triangular shape. I spoke to it, and encouraged the soul to move on, and it did. As opposed to my previous feelings in many other taharot of a slight sense of distress because I had never felt the “spiritual” aspect that many others say they feel during the ritual, this time, I felt it. I felt true closure for her soul, and knew my capacity to guide it toward God and the next part of her journey.
Zoe Ariana Van Raan is the director of services for the Chevrah Kadisha of Northern New Mexico. She is studying to become a rabbi. She teaches Hebrew and Jewish studies, officiates at B’nai Mitzvah, memorial services and other rites of passage. Zoe also works with a hospice center, caring for those at the end of their lives. She is a student of the Gamliel Institute.