How and Why I Sit with the Deceased Before Burial
I don’t remember exactly when I first learned of chevrah kadisha (holy society), the group of people who ensure that the bodies of deceased Jews are properly protected and prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition. I do recall that it was sometime in early 2011 that I volunteered to serve as a shomeret (guard, feminine form) for members of my synagogue on behalf of the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation, which organizes and manages our local Jewish burial society. Chevrah kadisha is a Jewish custom that originated in Prague in 1564.
I’m not certain what prompted me to take on this important role to guard the body, but like most things I choose to do, it probably had something to do with feeling that I was making a difference in the lives of others. There’s really no need to pat myself on the back, though, because I am one of several local Jews who serve as shomrim (guards, plural of shomer, which is the masculine form) and feel honored and privileged to fulfill this role that, obviously, cannot be reciprocated by the deceased. As an early riser, I enjoy committing to the early morning “shift,” and it certainly helps that the funeral home most often used is located less than five minutes from my home.
Admittedly, I know very little about Jewish mourning and burial traditions beyond what I have observed throughout my life attending funerals and shivas for temple members, friends, and family members, including my mother, who died in May of 2015. I’ve studied A Jewish Guide to Death and Mourning in Champaign-Urbana, a 64-page booklet that was written locally, revised most recently in 2016, and distributed to members of Sinai Temple of Champaign-Urbana here in central Illinois. In 2018, when our rabbi led several adult education classes on different aspects of death in Jewish tradition, I attended those sessions, too. Very informative!
In April 2011, I was called to serve as shomeret for the first time. The deceased was an older gentleman whom I knew from Sinai Temple, but more as an acquaintance than a friend. Before my two-hour stretch, which might occur anytime from the moment of death until burial, I re-read the guidelines that are essentially about decorum – what to do and what not to do while sitting with or guarding the body. The role of shomrim is simply to sit – in a back room of the funeral home, a lounge area, or in the room where the funeral will be held – without performing any self-indulgent acts such as eating, reading for pleasure, using a cell phone or iPad, and the like.
Though the Book of Psalms was available so I could read verses aloud, a traditional task for shomrim, I mostly sat in silence, alone with my thoughts. Occasionally, I was creeped out by the quiet in the back of the funeral home, just me and the deceased. Initially, I was overly sensitive to the building noises, the furnace and refrigerator motors clicking on and off. After a while, I stopped noticing all that.
Another time, I was called as a shomeret for my friend’s husband, who died following a massive stroke. He was only in his late 60s and because I’d known him personally, I felt truly privileged to be able to honor him and his life in this way.
A few years ago, I was called to be a shomeret for a man I did not know at all. The shomrim volunteering before me and after me did not know him either. Having seen neither an obituary in the local newspaper nor an announcement in the Sinai Temple or Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation emails, I felt genuine sadness as I sat with him, wondering about his life and how it was that he, or possibly his family, chose to engage our chevrah kadisha.
Last month, I served as a shomeret for the husband of a co-worker and friend. He, too, died in his mid-60s. I had met him only once at High Holiday services, and had no idea that he had had cancer for the past year atop some other health issues. I’d never been in this particular funeral home before, which had been converted from a small supermarket a few years back. There was a strangeness to that. It seemed not too long ago, I may have bought a head of lettuce in that same spot where I sat and guarded the body.
I’ve never volunteered to be part of the group that performs the ritual cleaning and washing of the body in preparation for burial (known in Hebrew as taharah), but I’ve been through the training and plan to take on this role in the near future. Unlike serving as a shomeret, which is not done based on gender, taharah is performed by women for women and by men for men. I’ve talked to a few of the temple members who fill this role, and they find meaning in participating in our chevrah kadisha in this way. Having been with my mother and a dear friend at the end of each of their lives, coupled with the fact that I’ve spent my professional years working in health care, including serving the elderly in nursing homes, I believe preparing the deceased for burial is something my psyche can handle.
As far as my own end of life wishes, I’m just not sure. A healthy 60-something, I feel I have a little time to firm up plans, but I’ve seen how life’s path can change so quickly. And though I’ve done a relatively thorough job taking care of business in my material life, admittedly, I haven’t given the same attention to my spiritual life. Possibly, I have the same aversion to facing death as many others.
For those who have chosen (or whose families have chosen) to use the services of our chevrah kadisha, I would like to believe that engaging with Jewish tradition in this way has brought them and their families some sense of comfort and peace.
Learn about Jewish burial and shiva practices that occur after the chevrah kadisha completes its work.