I sit with dead people.
Perhaps the headline is a little over the top, my apologies, and I certainly did not mean to be disrespectful. But it is true. Three years ago, I didn’t know what a Chevra Kadisha was, much less what they did…. my secular Jewish upbringing did not include any exposure to burial societies and their associated rituals. The Chevra Kadisha of Rodef Sholom performs the ritual washing and preparation of the deceased, we lead shiva services, we visit the sick and shut in – but we also serve as Shomrim (watchers).
Over the last three years, I have had the privilege of sitting with many men and women from our community after they have passed away, before they are buried. As a Shomer, I wait with them in that space/time between death and burial. By tradition, for the first 20 minutes of the hour, I read Psalms, different versions and interpretations, usually in English since my Hebrew is negligible. The rest of the hour I pray, read poetry or prose (mostly Jewish, typically related to death) and I speak to the person I am with. Since I usually don’t know them personally (perhaps only details from an obituary or from family members) I just try to be reassuring, letting them know they are not alone for this part of their journey.
I can’t tell you how this works for the departed or if they find it helpful. For me, these hours are deeply spiritual.
You might notice I have not provided my name; it is not that I am embarrassed – rather, my name serves no purpose. This mitzvah is not performed for recognition, but rather because I feel compelled. You are welcome to join us and find out more.
Prayer for the Shomerim* by D.L. Lang
As you travel towards the funeral home,
May you be blessed with patience.
As you enter the chapel,
May you be blessed with slowing.
As you relieve your predecessor,
May you be blessed with hugs and knowing silence.
As you gather near the presence of the meit(ah),
May you be blessed with stillness.
As you bring voice to ancient texts,
May you be blessed with kavanah.
As you chant long into the night,
May you be blessed with peaceful feelings.
As your voice grows weary,
May you be blessed with the courage to sing.
As you struggle to stay awake,
May you be blessed with renewed strength.
As the noises of the night disturb you,
May you realize G-d is your shomer.
As the sun rises on your shift,
May you be blessed with insight.
As you accompany the meit(ah) to their final resting space,
May you be blessed with humility.
As you return to the land of the living,
May the meit(ah) be forever blessed,
And may you be forever changed.
*Shomerim (or Shomrim) are those persons who stay with the body of the meit/ah(deceased), usually reciting Tehillim/Psalms. Their role is to guard the body, honor the meit/ah, and many would say to comfort the soul of the deceased, which is believed to still be near the body, until the burial. A male is called a shomer, a female a shomeret.