The call came early in the morning. The 3-month-old granddaughter of my neighbor had finally succumbed to the illness she was born with. I am a midwife, but this call wasn’t about a birth. This time the call was from the mortuary.
I have spent the last 30 years taking care of women in pregnancy, birth and beyond. I use my hands to help bring life into this world. Over the past few years, however, I found myself using those very same hands in the performance of a Taharah, a Jewish ritual that prepares a dead woman for burial. Birth, life, joy, beginnings vs. death, decay, finality. Such a contrast! What could be more different? And yet, somewhere in my consciousness, there was a commonality. Caring for a woman in her life, preparing a woman for birth had a parallel in preparing a woman for burial. The act of helping a woman and her baby through their many transitions seemed analogous to helping the soul transition from this plane of existence to the next.
“Taharah” means “to purify.” Particular prayers are said and simple hand-sewn white linen garments dress the body. All this is identical for everyone, no matter how old, how young, how rich, how poor. During a Taharah, all are treated the same.
I performed my first Taharah, and it was more than I expected – more silence, more depth, more sensitivity. The concern of being with and touching a dead body left as soon as I entered the room. The midwife in me took over. The four members of our team worked quietly, with tenderness. The peace in the room was tangible and present, and our lady seemed to reflect that. Her entire body, as well as her face, seemed to relax as we completed the ritual, intoning the prayers. And the energy, amazingly, felt the same as at a birth — a feeling of completion, a palpable sense of the soul transitioning and a humble appreciation of the privilege of being there.