This is a description that I wrote shortly after I had my first experience of shmirah, guarding or watching over someone who has died. The Jewish tradition is not to leave a person alone from the time of their death until the time of their burial. A shomer (male) or shomeret (female) is the person who stays with the dead person during this time.
I was asked as a member of the Chevrah Kadisha to serve this role for a person in the community who had died. This case was a bit unusual. the person’s family said the deceased would not have wanted anyone to lose sleep watching over him. As a result, we only had people sit with him from the time he was placed in his coffin after the autopsy until the time I left to go home to bed that evening.
I arrived early, so I had time to walk around the facility, a mausoleum and funeral home (identifying information omitted). I was surprised to see that some people’s ashes were stored in containers in glass cases, which also contained other personal items, such as photographs, eyeglasses, and, in one case, a CD of the person’s memorial service.
At one end of the mausoleum are a couple of small chapels. The shomeret on the shift before me was in one of them, with the met (the body of the male deceased), who was in a plain wooden casket with a Jewish star on it.
I let the person with the shift before me know I was there, and I allowed her a moment to say goodbye to the met. After she left, I greeted the met, and introduced myself. I thought it would be creepy to be in a big mausoleum by myself at night, but it wasn’t.
The only thing even mildly creepy was the music playing in the background. It was like bad elevator music on Quaaludes – the very worst of what stereotypical funeral home music can be.
Traditionally, people doing shmirah read Psalms. The good news is that once I started reading the Psalms out loud, I could barely hear the awful music. I soon realized I should have brought a bottle of water. After only 20 or 30 minutes of reading out loud, my mouth started to dry out.
Other than that, the evening was uneventful and passed quickly. When it came time to leave, I felt bad about leaving the met, especially with that awful music playing. If I were him, that music would be driving me crazy. I wondered whether dead people get crazed by things like that.
On the way home, I began to wonder why it wasn’t creepy at all being there. It occurred to me that if I had just been sitting there, and not reading out loud, it would have been easier for me to hear odd noises and to start to think about them. Also, by concentrating on my reading, I didn’t have time to dwell on the possible source of any odd noises, even when I did hear them.
Then I thought, maybe there is something to reading all those Psalms about “God will protect me” and “God’s love is steadfast.” Maybe reading Psalms actually does provide mental strength and comfort. Maybe it helped me. I hope the Psalms, and/or my presence, helped the met.
Susan Esther Barnes is a founding member of Rodef Sholom’s (Marin) Chevrah Kadisha, and she can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services.
(C) 2014-2019 Kavod v’Nichum
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.