Last week a beloved member of my synagogue died. She was the epitome of quiet, graceful strength, a woman for whom every day was filled with hope and promise—in her 60s, she had just finished another degree and embarked on a new career. I have always felt powerless in the face of death and this time, even more so. God does what God does, death happens; questioning won't change a thing. But this loss seemed as wrong as that of a young person, or war. Why can't God fix it? So when offered the chance to sit shmira and keep vigil in the hours before the funeral so her body and soul would never be alone during that time, I volunteered. I wanted to take some kind of action, anything, to try and right the balance of the universe.
I had never done this before. I was always too chicken, but am less frightened by the prospect of coming near a dead body than I used to be. A few weeks ago I attended a fascinating study session about the texts recited during tahara, the ritual cleansing and purification of the body prior to burial, and thought... perhaps one day. Not yet, though. Sitting shmira felt less daunting, and a bridge to the other possibility. I chose the hour right before Shabbat morning services so that I could walk to the funeral home in early morning quiet and then leave knowing I could think about my experience during prayer, and in the company of friends.
The front door of the funeral home was was open, the lobby deserted. I made my way downstairs and looked for "the room with the caskets" through which I was supposed to walk. The large, dark space was empty, though, except for a few sofas that had seen better days. Seated on one was a man with a beard and siddur. He looked up, smiled, and pointed to a brightly-lit corridor, where I saw a member of my synagogue. I nodded in thanks and made my way across to the other side.
There was nothing more than a low-ceilinged space ringed with doors, some to elevators, some worn around the handles and adorned with complicated locks, and one that looked like a bank vault upon which hung a big biohazard sign. Below that was taped a sheet of loose-leaf paper containing three names, one familiar and with an asterisk. Below that, a sign in careful, heavy print: "All remains must have head block!!!" I didn't want to think about what that meant. But I also knew the space couldn't be holy without that sign, an important, if prosaic, admonition for everyone to show respect in all possible ways.
A short row of dingy, plastic folding chairs lined the wall across from the door, just a foot or two away. The man from my synagogue, a good friend of the woman's, looked tired but calm—not upset. I was a few minutes early so sat down next to him, not sure what to do. I took out my book of Tehllim, Psalms. I rubbed my eyes, not yet awake.
"Are you OK?" he asked. Maybe he thought I was crying. I smiled. "Just fine." And with that I opened to the first page, glad I had this copy and didn't need one of the books without an English translation that spilled off a crowded shelf to my right.
The man from my synagogue left after a few minutes and I moved into his chair, across from the vault door. I looked at the woman's name, imagining her asleep inside as her family traveled, in pain, right at that minute. I didn't understand how what was about to happen could comfort them, but hoped it would. I silently asked the woman to forgive me for anything I might do that was wrong, and began to read.