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Here is a first hand account of someone’s first shmira (Jewish tradition of watching over the dead before burial) experience.  I particularly like her description of what reciting Psalms meant to her.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My First Experience of Shmira

By Susan Esther Barnes

This week, I had my first experience of shmira, guarding or watching over someone who has died. The Jewish tradition is not to leave a person alone from the time of his or her 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.


This case was a bit unusual. Because of the circumstances of his death, an autopsy had to be performed. Also, 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. We had three people do the shmira, in shifts.


I arrived early, so I had time to walk around the mausoleum. It is a large building, that appears to have been expanded over the years. Most of the dates on the markers showed they were for people who died in the 1900’s, but a couple were from the 1800’s. I imagine those may be for people whose remains were moved, because I don’t think the building is that old.


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 person with the shift before me was in one of them, with the met (the body of the deceased), who was in a plain wooden coffin 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 creepy at all.


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. The person with the shift before me said they tried to find a way to turn it off, but couldn’t, and decided against trying to disconnect the speaker.


Traditionally, people doing shmira 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. When it came time to leave, I felt bad about leaving the met there all alone, especially with that awful music playing all night. If I were him, that music would be driving me crazy – if 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. Maybe it’s just because of my experience with taharah and the time I spent in the adjoining morgue helped the surroundings to be more familiar and comfortable to me. Certainly, once you have washed and dressed a dead person, just sitting in a room with one you can’t even see is less of a formidable experience. But when you’re doing taharah, it isn’t in the dark of night, and you’re with other people, which helps to cut down on any potential creepiness.


I thought maybe it wasn’t creepy that night because the place isn’t haunted because all the spirits were long since chased away by that awful music.


It also 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.