Before I leave work, I exchange my pants for a skirt. There is no dress code for preparing a body for Baha’i burial, but for Esther, we will follow the Native American tradition of women wearing dresses in sacred ceremonies. Those ceremonies are the only time Esther wore a dress. There are instructions for the shroud: Cotton or silk. We chose cotton because she was a cotton-kind-of-gal. No frills, but bright colors, and flower prints.
Three of us had done this once before. That made us the leaders, and true to the way we three women lead, we admitted we will be figuring this out as we go. The one who knows how to sew and is not intimidated by fabric stores brought the cloth. The other, rose scented water. I had the Baha’i burial ring with the engraved inscription: “I came forth from God, and return unto Him, detached from all save Him, holding fast to His Name, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”
The ring was in a zippered pocket of my backpack. All day, I remembered it was there, and tried to focus on work. I answered emails, shopped at Office Depot, and recruited kids for a summer arts program. But that made me think of Esther. She always came to the culminating performance, even if she didn’t know any of the kids.
Throughout the day I would think of someone who might not have heard yet, and called them. If they didn’t know, I explained about the massive stroke, the peaceful passing, and funeral tomorrow. If they already knew, we shared an Esther story. Everyone said they worried about Ben.
Esther was a feminist who adored her husband. Maybe they worked out equality issues before I knew them. Or maybe they didn’t have any. At women gatherings, if someone complained about her husband, Esther was silent, or changed the subject. I don’t recall them holding hands, or hugging in public, but they didn’t need to. I could never think of one without the other. When I whispered good-bye to her, I promised we would take care of Ben. It felt like the right thing to say, but now, I’m at a loss for how to do it. I couldn’t do it for my dad when Mom died. Ben echoed my father’s words… “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I was supposed to go first.”
I go to the funeral home and don’t see any recognizable cars. I wait outside until two friends come, and we discover two women inside I didn’t know. We wait and more came, and then more. By the time everyone arrives, there are fifteen of us.
We ask for a CD player, but never use it. We sing, pray, and chant. We pour rose water on bright blue washcloths, women on each side, wash and thank her body. “You served her well.”
The ring is placed on her finger, and we consult on how to do the wrapping. The three of us each had different experiences. We decide to do what none of us had done. We begin at her feet and use the whole cloth, moving up the body, working together, holding, lifting, wrapping. Then took turns securing her with ribbons.
“Should we put her in the casket?” The Funeral Director told the first women who arrived that we could place her in it if we wished or have them do it. When I did this for my niece, that wasn’t an option. I hadn’t expected to make this decision. What if we drop her? I feel Esther laughing at my silly worry. There are fifteen of us to do this. And this is the way it should be…women who loved her… laying her body in the coffin, tucking her in.
Afterwards, we fall in a circle around the casket. We chant a prayer and sing Amazing Grace. We thank each other, we thank Esther. We cry. We laugh. We put our arms around each other and stand in silence. No one wants to leave. But it is time.
Ben is outside waiting with our husbands, boyfriends, and sons. Our joy startles their sadness. And Ben smiles.
Six months later, these same men prepare Ben’s body. We hear the singing while we wait and hum along with them.