Care for the dead
In traditional Jewish practice, after a person dies, the eyes are closed, the body is laid on the floor and covered, and candles are lit next to the body. The body is never left alone until after burial, as a sign of respect. The people who sit with the dead body are called shomrim, meaning “guards” or “keepers.”
The shomrim may not eat, drink, or perform a commandment in the presence of the dead. To do so would be considered mocking the dead, because the dead can no longer do such things.
Shomrim recite Psalms (Tehillim) to soothe the soul of the departed.
For more on Jewish funeral practices, visit the website of Kavod v’Nichum, www.jewish-funerals.org.
November 20, 2008
I hadn’t known what to expect, since it would be just me and the dead body. It turned out to be four dead bodies, actually. But they weren’t creepy.
‘Guarding’ a body is a journey between worlds.
The window, however, was jarring, like a window into a different dimension.
I sat in the large, cozy chair for two hours, reading psalms and several guidebooks on death and mourning. Time lost its meaning in that cubbyhole of a room. It condensed and expanded until I couldn’t remember what month or what season it was. Though it was the middle of the night, I stayed wide awake.
And I looked up, every so often, right into that window that separated my world from the bodies’, distracted by the shadows dancing from the flickering candle on its sill, shadows that often appeared to be coming from beyond the glass.
That night, I agreed to participate for the first time in shmira — the mitzva of “guarding” bodies in the funeral parlor during the limbo between death and the funeral — as part of our congregation’s hevra kadisha or burial society. The call had come to the members of the as-yet largely untrained, nascent hevra kadisha, when the family of an elder of the congregation who had just died requested that we take care of his body. Eight of us each took a two-hour shift; mine was midnight to two a.m.
Participation in the traditional hevra kadisha dwindled during the mid-1900s, particularly among non-Orthodox communities, as funeral rites became professionalized. But over the last two decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in returning control of this mitzva to the local community. A growing number of synagogues are organizing or resuscitating their burial societies, including Congregation Beth El in South Orange, where I am a member.
In 2000, Kavod v’Nichum, a national umbrella body, was formed and began offering annual conferences and year-round resources and support to revive grassroots participation in death and bereavement practices. This year’s conference, in Edison, drew more than 125 people from around North America.
When I arrived for my shmira duty at the back entrance of the Bernstein-Apter-Kreitzman Suburban Funeral Chapel in Livingston, I was relieved to hear the familiar voice of a congregant I know call out, “Who’s there?”
Rather than preserve the customary silence, he offered me a brief tour of the back area of the funeral parlor and described what it had been like to participate in the tahara, or washing of the body.
He opened the door to the refrigerated temporary home of the bodies awaiting funerals. I looked inside. The body of our beloved elder was the only one already in a coffin, ready for the service later that morning.
The hevra kadisha member serving as my guide showed me into the small room with a window looking into the refrigerated area. Because the coffin was against the far wall, I could not see it through the window; the other bodies, covered in sheets, were visible.
My “guide,” who was just finishing his shift, pointed out the books on the coffee table — Tehillim, or Psalms, mostly Hebrew-Russian editions; a Reconstructionist guide to death and mourning, which he recommended; and a Conservative guide, circa 1953, from a long defunct Newark synagogue. He introduced me to the paid shomer who normally guards the bodies — the shomer excused himself and exited to another room, perhaps to allow me to perform the mitzva alone this evening, perhaps because he preferred not to sit alone with a woman in the small shmira room; the guide left.
Anxiety and nervousness departed when I finally settled, alone, into that chair, directly facing the window. The air was still in the small area designated for the shomrim; the paint was peeling from the walls. I looked through the books, seeking comfort, uplift, meaning on their pages.
What do you think about at such a time, when you are not mourning but death is palpably near? A rush of associations with death is followed by contemplations of loved ones lost and accompanying tears. You face the window and notice how dark it is inside. You recognize that for these bodies it no longer matters. And then transcendence arrives. You are transported into a Renaissance painting. You are the fruit on the table; the skull lies just beyond the window.
I turned to Psalms and their beseeching cast-off-your-sins-lest-you-die, unrepentant-ye-should-glory-in-God-tone. Although I had so far resisted, I told myself, I would dutifully read them, as custom prescribes, until the end of the shift. That’s when I discovered that reciting Tehillim is not for the dead; it is for the living. The words, always a distant call from a bygone era, suddenly rang true, full of wisdom and meaning. The Renaissance painting merely echoed their wisdom.
I don’t know how long I read; at two a.m., another hevra kadisha member arrived to take my place. She had brought her own book of Psalms and took over from the verse I had just finished.
I exited the funeral parlor into the rainy, chilly fall night. I drove home in the dark. I tumbled into bed, and I was grateful to hear my husband snoring. The cat purred and she curled contentedly on my chest, and I drifted.
I do not recall the weather the next morning — only that it was glorious.
Shmira is all about honoring the dead. But like so much in Judaism, it offers, in equal part, affirmation for the living.