At best, my relationship with Death is uneasy. I rail when It prematurely steals a life – a child, a teen, a young parent. It wounds me when It deprives me of a family member or friend. And I tremble with fear when I think about It taking my dearly beloveds, and in truth, myself.
So when Beth Evergreen formed a Chevra Kaddisha, a volunteer group to perform sacred rites for the dead, I approached the opportunity with a great deal of trepidation. After all, the primary function is to be a shomer (guard), sitting with the body of the deceased before burial. Like many Jewish traditions, this one has practical origins. In days of old, the shomer protected the body from being stolen by predators or desecrated by rodents. Over time, the tradition has survived as a mark of honor and respect for the deceased, to be present with them and help ease the soul’s transition from the body.
I wanted to do this mitzvah for members of my spiritual family. So I went to the training and agreed to serve. Yet I still wasn’t looking forward to sitting in the chilly, sterile basement room at Feldman’s Mortuary near downtown Denver, an hour’s commute.
The first time I sat shmirah, it was the middle of winter and the anniversary of my father’s death. I signed up for the 5 a.m. shift, arriving at the mortuary in deep darkness. The only other car in the parking lot was the hearse. I let myself in with the key code and climbed down the narrow staircase to the basement. My fellow congregant was alone in the dimly lit room, covered by a white sheet, a candle at his head and another at his feet. As I settled in, I began to feel a sense of peace as I thanked him for what he had contributed to my life. The two-hour shift passed quickly, and I left with gratitude for his help in facing my fears. It was even more meaningful because I was repaying those who had guarded my father.
I have since performed shmirah several times. Some of the deceased I knew quite well; some were casual acquaintances. And all have given me an opportunity to reflect and to grow as I sit with them, thank them, meditate with them and pray with them.
My custom now is to open the prayer book and know that whatever page appears is the right one. That feeling was strengthened most recently when I turned to the same poem not once, but twice in the 882-page Reconstructionist prayer book, “Kol Haneshamah.” Coincidence? The universe bringing me to the exact right page? I don’t know. Yet even now, as I type the words of the poem, I get chills at the well-deserved tribute that appeared before me.
The poem, I Shall Sing to the Lord a New Song, by Ruth H. Sohn, includes these lines:
My hands turn to dove wings.
For the sky
And I want to sing
The song rising inside me.
What better way to celebrate the life of a dear congregant who graced us with a lovely voice? I recited the poem aloud several times as I sat with my friend that morning, and I felt both of our spirits rise.
Though I must admit that my uneasy relationship to Death hasn’t changed significantly, sitting shmirah has enriched my life. I am receiving as much of a mitzvah as I am giving.
May their memories be for a blessing.