(Continued from here.)
We were far underground, and it was very quiet. No sounds of the city or traffic could reach this place. But after a few moments I was jarred alert by a deep, mechanical rumbling: as my mother used to say, the refrigerator was running. (To where?) I was glad for the noise, which distracted me and made me work harder to concentrate. Noise, then quiet, then noise again, just like the rest of life. I read the psalms a few lines at a time, stopping often to think about what they meant, and then repeated each one aloud in Hebrew.
Time passed very slowly at first. I looked at my watch—only five minutes had gone by, then ten. But after awhile the minutes ran into each other, and I lost track.
The man with the beard and siddur came in, and took the chair perpendicular to mine. He began to speak (this is allowed, I wondered?—OK, I guess it's fine). He was the shomer of the funeral home, the staff member who sat with the deceased until interment, and also performed tahara on men. He had been there all night long, and would remain after I left.
He looked me up and down and then straight in the eye, and smiled and shook his head. "I've never seen anything like this," he said "Every hour, someone else is here. Who was she? Was she very important? Does everyone in your shul have to do this? How many members do you have?"
I was surprised by his questions—everyone doesn't do this? Or maybe he was shocked because we're not an Orthodox congregation? Either way, I was very proud of us. I told him a little about her life, and our community—that we were not required sit shmira, but our rabbis taught that it was our responsibility. And we all loved her, so were honored to help. He nodded again, and plucked another volume of Talmud from the shelf. We sat in silence for another twenty minutes, and then my hour was up. I said goodbye, and thanked him; he smiled. I went through a small door and climbed up a few narrow, winding flights, and suddenly found myself on the sidewalk, blinking in bright sunlight. I felt sad and calm, as if I had just been close to a different, softer kind of life, not death.
(Please also read the Velveteen Rabbi's beautiful musings about sitting shmira here.)