November 16, 2018

My First Shmirah


I vaguely recall that it was sometime in 1986, but I can’t swear to it. Too many years have passed, too many other things have happened. I remember some aspects, though.

I was involved in a synagogue but I had no thought of getting involved in Shmirah – I am not even sure I knew what it was at the time.

Of course, there was a death in the community. Most of those who usually participated were away, or busy, or were unable for other reasons. I was called – out of the blue – probably because they were out of options. By the time they got to calling me, they must have been desperate, and anything that had a pulse would have been acceptable.

I was asked to sit for two hours in the early morning time slot (2-4 am). The caller assured me it was easy, the person I was relieving could stay for a little and show me the ropes, and the person who followed me would know what they were doing. All I had to do was stay, and read some Psalms or other materials that would be there. I allowed myself to be persuaded, mostly by the fact that it would be performing a mitzvah, and I was told that there was a real need for someone to do it. I agreed, and was given the directions on where to go.

I set the alarm, and got up in time. I dressed, drove to the funeral home, arriving a few minutes early, and then found myself fumbling around to find the right door to enter. It was off the parking lot in the back as I was told, but I had not known that there were at least five doors facing that lot! After a bit, I found the right one, and entered, just about on time.

The person who was there was waiting for me impatiently, all packed up. They glanced at their watch, and said they had to leave right away – and took off out the door before I could even form a question. So much for being shown the ropes.

This was not a fancy facility. I was sitting in a staging room. There were several meitim on gurneys around me, some under a sheet, some in caskets. None of them was the meit for whom I was there as shomer.

It turned out he was in the refrigeration unit, to one side of this staging room. There was a small glass window in the door, so I could look in and observe him without having to enter the cooler. I figured that must be what people did, because there was a chair just in front of that door, placed so someone could simply stand up and look in the window, and there was a second chair with some books on it, including Tehillim (Psalms). So that was where I was going to be.

Since I didn’t know and hadn’t been told, I had to figure out which of the deceased in the refrigerator unit was my meit. To do that, I had to go into the refrigerator, and look at the names of those there. Fortunately, there were only six deceased in the unit, and the meit I was Shomer for was in the center, directly in front of the window in the door. So far, so good.

I closed the refrigeration unit, sat down on the chair, and took the book of Psalms. I realized that I had no idea what I was doing, and experienced a bit of anxiety, then I took a breath, calmed myself, and thought it can’t be all that hard. I figured there must be a pattern or structure to how to do this and gt it right. So I worked out a system. I would read one Psalm, stand and look in on the meit, sit down, read another, and repeat. I was not the fastest reader around, so it wasn’t quite the jack in the box operation you might picture, but it certainly grew tiresome as time wore on.

After about thirty minutes is when I realized that I had not brought anything to snack on, or drink. Reading aloud was causing my mouth to become dry. I decided that performing the mitzvah, as important as it was, would not be invalidated if I found a cup and some water (and a bathroom!). Fortunately, there was a water fountain and a cup dispenser not far off, and a bathroom in the hallway.

I continued to read. The clock crawled ahead – fifty minutes, an hour and ten minutes, an hour and twenty-five minutes, an hour and three quarters, two hours…. I was feeling glad that my time was almost up. I was bone tired, weary, and feeling very isolated there, all alone.  I began anticipating my replacement Shomer.

And then four AM came and went with no replacement in sight. The minutes kept crawling by, but no one appeared. I didn’t know who was supposed to follow me, no idea who I could call at 4 am (back then, I would have had to use the funeral home’s telephone system, which was locked up, as I had no cell phone) and had no phone list with me in any case.

I resigned myself to staying until 6 AM when the next person was scheduled to arrive.

Needless to say, the time did pass. I think my reading slowed as the night wore on, and I was rising to check with less alacrity. Still, when the next Shomer arrived at about five minutes to 6 am, I was happy to see him.

We exchanged a few words, I washed my hands, and I left.

As I walked out of the building, I felt really good. Exhausted, sure, but I had done a mitzvah, offering honor, and comfort, and company for the deceased, and it made me feel really good. Despite the inconveniences, the uncertainty, and the organizational failings, I had done my part, and it mattered – to me, at least, but I felt it mattered to the meit, to his family, and to the community.

That feeling is what hooked me. That is why I agreed when I was next called, and really, why I have continued to agree whenever I am called. If you have not felt that, maybe you can let someone in your community know that you would like to try out being a Shomer. I think you will find it worthwhile, and I don’t imagine you will have as many problems as I did my first time.




Please Tell Anyone Who May Be Interested!

       Winter 2016:


Gamliel Institute Course 1, Chevrah Kadisha History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE) as planned will be offered over twelve weeks on Tuesday evenings. The schedule is from December 6th, 2016 to February 21st, 2017, online. There are still a few slots open in the entering class!  


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The focus of this course is on the history and development of the modern Chevrah Kadisha, the origins of current practices, and how the practices and organizations have changed to reflect the surrounding culture, conditions, and expectations. The course takes us through the various text sources (biblical, talmudic, rabbinic, and on) to seek the original basis of the Chevrah Kadisha, harking to Prague in the 1600’s, through the importation of the Chevrah Kadisha to America, and all the way to recent days. It is impossible to really understand how we came to the current point without a sense of the history.


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