What is Shmirah?
Shmirah is the Jewish tradition of prayerfully or mindfully accompanying the deceased between death and burial. During this momentous transition, the shomer (one who performs the mitzvah of shmirah – plural shomrim, feminine shomeret) honors the body of the deceased by offering a protective presence, and comforts the soul as it begins its new journey away from the body, its lifelong partner.
Shmirah has the distinction of being among the last acts of kindness you can do for another person, one that no two people can do for each other, and one for which the recipient can never thank the giver. Finally, respectful care when we can no longer care for ourselves is something that each one of us is bound to need someday.
What is Austin Shmirah?
Austin Shmirah is a volunteer partnership between Jewish congregations and similar organizations on one hand, and affiliated and unaffiliated individuals on the other, to provide shmirah for local Jewish deceased regardless of affiliation or lack thereof.
How do congregations participate?
Each member congregation sets its own independent criteria regarding how it conducts the tradition of shmirah. Each congregation determines who may serve on its team (some have no restrictions at all, while others follow halachic or ritual guidelines), whether to schedule shmirah around the clock or only during office hours, whether or not to schedule shmirah on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, etc.
Each congregation appoints Shmirah Coordinators to schedule shifts and contact all shomrim serving through their congregation when the need arises. Congregational Shmirah Coordinators have access to online resources to communicate with their shomrim quickly and easily from any electronic device. They can easily “buddy up” and share shomrim when two deceased are present at the same funeral home.
Each congregation’s requirements are listed below. When registering as a shomer, please honor their wishes by partnering only with those whose requirements you meet.
Chabad of Greater Austin (COGA): Male kohanim may not serve; female kohanim may serve. Shomrim must be considered Jewish by (Orthodox) halachic standards. Please consult Rabbi Levertov (512-418-9770) or another Orthodox rabbi if you need further clarification. We ask that shomrim engage in appropriate reading (preferably Tehilim), prayer, or meditation during their shifts.
Congregation Agudas Achim (CAA, Conservative/Masorti): Shomrim must be born of a Jewish mother or have undergone a formal conversion that included mikvah (ritual immersion) and beit din (rabbinical court) and is recognized as binding by the rabbi of their own Austin congregation. Please consult your rabbi if you need further clarification. Kohanim and b’not kohanim (daughters of kohanim) may not serve. We ask that shomrim engage in appropriate reading, prayer, or meditation during their shifts.
Congregation Beth El (CBE, Traditional Conservative): Jews by birth to a Jewish mother or by formal conversion are invited to participate in shmirah. Male Kohanim are not eligible, but b'not Kohanim (women from Kohen families) are eligible. We prefer that shomrim read T'hillim (Psalms), but other appropriate reading is acceptable.
Congregation Beth Israel (CBI, Reform): We welcome all who wish to serve as Shomrim (watchers), Jewish or not, and we will provide Tehilim (Psalms) and other texts for use during their shifts.
Congregation Kol Halev (CKH, Unaffiliated): No congregational restrictions. If an individual family requests restrictions, these will be specified in the e-mail calling for shomrim.
Congregation Shalom Rav (CSR, RRC-affiliated – "a Reconstructionist Congregation Sponsoring Jewish Renewal in Austin"): We invite all members of our congregation and others to serve as shomrim in the capacity that each one brings, shaped by their own unique spiritual path, and at the same time fully conforming to all the specifications that each family of the deceased may request in their general call for shomrim. Our Chevrah Kadisha is developing a lending library of Torah-based and global religious texts that may provide benefit to the shomer and, in the meditation thereof, aid the prayerful intention of the shomer to influence a positive passage of the Soul of the deceased from this world to the next.
Congregation Shir Ami (CSA, Reform): We welcome all who wish to serve as shomrim. Rabbi Reice will meet with families to discuss any personal requests or preferences they have. We provide Shomrim with Tehilim and other texts for their shifts.
Congregation Tiferet Israel (CTI, Orthodox): We welcome those who wish to share in this ultimate mitzvah of kavod hamet (honoring the deceased). Men and women who are born of a Jewish mother or who underwent an Orthodox conversion are invited to serve. Please consult Rabbi Dan (847-612-3393) with any questions you may have. Male kohanim may not serve as shomrim, although they may be involved in the administrative portions of the mitzvah. We ask that shomrim engage in appropriate readings (preferably Psalms), prayer, or meditation during their shifts.
Firepit Minyan: No restrictions on who may serve.
Temple Beth Shalom (TBS, Reform): We welcome all who wish to serve as shomrim. If an individual family makes specific requests, these will be communicated in the e-mail calling for shomrim.
Wandering Minyan: No restrictions on who may serve.
How do shomrim participate?
Every shomer is free to choose which congregation(s) to partner with, as long as they meet the criteria of the congregation(s). Shomrim choose when to serve and how often. We do request that each shomer serve a minimum of one or two shifts per year.
As a member of Austin Shmirah, you can:
- perform shmirah once in your lifetime just for the experience, and then cross it off your bucket list;
- take shifts while you yourself are in mourning, as an opportunity to process your own grief while comforting others;
- honor the memory of a loved one by serving yearly at approximately the time of the yarzeit (anniversary of death); or
- … our favorite! … join the ranks of those who accompany the deceased on their journey every chance they get, over a period of many years.
Who benefits from Austin Shmirah?
Thanks to the cooperative nature of Austin Shmirah, there are a number of mutual benefits among congregations, shomrim, and those we serve.
- Smaller congregations (with few shomrim among their members) get reinforcements from the rest of the community when they have many shifts to fill
- Shomrim of larger congregations (with many deaths) avoid burnout thanks to the shifts filled by those outside the congregation
- Shomrim who find great meaning in this mitzvah can increase their opportunities to perform it by partnering with multiple congregations
- All deceased whom we serve are honored by shomrim from across the community, in keeping with their own congregation’s approach to the ritual. Our service is offered free of charge. Many more shifts can be filled than if each congregation were operating in isolation. All this is a comfort to the loved ones of the deceased as well
Who can be a shomer?
Anyone who is willing and able to pray, read, meditate, sing or play comforting music, and/or hold good intentions and kind thoughts for a couple of hours can join Austin Shmirah as a shomer.
- Whether you’re a night owl looking for something to do at 3:00 AM or a homemaker/retiree with flexibility during the daytime;
- Whether you’re an introvert who thrives on time alone or a social butterfly who needs an incentive to commit to quiet reflection now and then;
- Whether you’re an able-bodied person or living with a physical or intellectual disability, and seeking an equal-opportunity way to bless someone just by your own unique presence;
- Whether you have an erratic, unpredictable schedule or are able to be “on call” for a particular shift whenever it materializes;
- Whether you’re a young person wishing to honor those who came before you or an older person anticipating how you’ll be cared for when you can no longer care for yourself;
... whoever you are, Austin Shmirah invites you to become one of the last people on earth to do an act of chesed – lovingkindness – for a fellow Jew.
How do I get started?
To join Austin Shmirah as a shomer, click Join the Chevrah Kadishah Community in the Main Menu. Under Join Austin Shmirah as a Shomer, click Register, fill out the form, and click Process Subscription.
To become a Shmirah Coordinator for your congregation, see the FAQ “How do I become a Shmirah Coordinator for my congregation?”
To shmooze over coffee (or on Zoom) about shmirah in general or Austin Shmirah in particular, click Contact Us, then click on the name of the Area Coordinator, and shoot her an email.
For spiritual and practical guidelines on how to perform shmirah, visit https://kavodvnichum.org/taharah-shmirah/.
How long are shmirah shifts?
Daytime shifts, from 8 AM to 10 PM, are two hours long. Overnight shifts, from 10 PM to 8 AM, are 2½ hours long. Lengthening each overnight shift by 30 minutes eliminates the unpopular 2 AM to 4 AM slot.
Some shifts may be shortened or extended a bit by verbal agreement. For example, the first (last) shift may start (end) a bit before or after the official time, depending on when the deceased arrives at (leaves) the funeral home. There is no obligation to extend your shift if it’s not convenient for you.
Shifts immediately before and after Shabbat may be shortened to allow the shomer to observe Shabbat.
These circumstance-based changes in shift length are managed by verbal agreement between the coordinator and the shomer. On the website calendar, shift length does not change. For example, if the deceased arrives at the funeral home at 11 AM, the first shomer should sign up for the 10AM-to-noon shift and arrive at 11AM.
What is the role of the Congregational Shmirah Coordinator?
Each Austin Shmirah member congregation takes charge of the needs of its own deceased, with help from shomrim from across the entire community. To ensure each congregation’s autonomy in its approach to shmirah, and to guard against any one congregation’s becoming the “little red hen,” each congregation appoints one or more in-house coordinators.
The primary support person for all Congregational Shmirah Coordinators is the Area Coordinator. Please feel free to contact her (Main Menu->Contact Us) to discuss any aspect of your role as Congregational Shmirah Coordinator.
The primary roles of the Congregational Shmirah Coordinator include:
- Create an entry on the “Take a Shift” page for each deceased served through the congregation
- Solicit shomrim to fill the shifts
- Communicate with shomrim and funeral homes as needed to ensure optimum shift coverage, personal safety, and building security
- Consult with the Area Coordinator as needed
One-time-only and occasional roles of the Congregational Shmirah Coordinator include:
- If the congregation is not yet a part of Austin Shmirah, advocate to join within the congregation, and contact the Area Coordinator (Main Menu->Contact Us) for help getting started
- Recruit one or more backup coordinators to take over when the primary coordinator cannot be on duty or simply needs a break. As long as the congregation has a coordinator on duty at all times, tasks and schedules can be divvied up in any way the coordinators see fit
- Recruit new shomrim from within the congregation
- Encourage the congregation’s shomrim and chevrah kadishah members to attend the annual Chevrah Kadishah banquet and learning sessions (usually scheduled on the evening of Adar 7, in February or March)
- Consult with the congregation’s spiritual leadership on shmirah-related matters
- Answer congregants’ questions about Austin Shmirah or shmirah in general, or direct said questions to the Area Coordinator or to the congregation’s spiritual leadership
We recommend working closely with your congregation’s spiritual leadership in all shmirah-related decision-making.
How do I become a Shmirah Coordinator for my congregation?
Wow, nobody’s ever asked us that before!
If your congregation is already a member of Austin Shmirah, reach out to your Lead Coordinator as follows:
- Click Coordinator List (in the Shomer’s Menu, accessible to registered members of Austin Shmirah).
- Search for the name of your congregation in the column labeled “For whom are you serving as a Shmirah Coordinator?” There may be several entries for your congregation.
- In the column labeled “Select your coordinator level,” your lead coordinator’s entry will be “Primary.” Get your congregation’s Primary Shmirah Coordinator’s permission to serve as Shmirah Coordinator. If your congregation doesn’t yet have a Shmirah Coordinator, get the permission of your spiritual leader.
- Then click Join the Chevrah Kadishah Community (Main Menu). Under Become a Shmirah Coordinator, click Register. Fill out the form and click Process Subscription.
- Notify the Area Coordinator so that your new account can be activated: Click Contact Us (Main Menu), click on the name of the Area Coordinator, and send an email.
If your congregation is not yet part of Austin Shmirah, contact the Area Coordinator (Main Menu->Contact Us) for help getting started.
What is the role of the Area Coordinator?
The Area Coordinator handles action items that concern the entire Austin Shmirah community. The activities of the current Area Coordinator include the following.
- Support all Congregational Coordinators. The Area Coordinator trains, supports, advises, and cheerleads for the shmirah coordinators of all member congregations, but does not schedule shomrim for them. Much of the “training” can now be accomplished simply by reading the content in the Information and Instructions section in the Coordinator’s Menu. That said, the Area Coordinator is just a phone call or text away for any coordinator (or shomer) who needs additional information or just a one-on-one, back-and-forth conversation
- Communicate with the webmaster on website design, development, and troubleshooting
- Engage in city-wide recruitment of new shomrim. Very often, all that’s needed to spark interest in shmirah is facetime with someone who’s passionate about it and presents it as an engaging, accessible mitzvah. By speaking at different congregations and community events, the Area Coordinator can raise awareness of the existence and benefits of Austin Shmirah, inspire new individuals to volunteer as shomrim, and give well-established, active participants a fresh appreciation of the value of their service. The Area Coordinator also supports Congregational Coordinators in recruiting shomrim on their own
- Activate profiles of new members (both shomrim and Congregational Coordinators) and delete those of former members
- Support congregations joining Austin Shmirah. The Area Coordinator can invite non-member congregations to become a part of the Austin Shmirah network, or suggest ways for established member congregations to become more active. Currently all Austin-area congregations participate in Austin Shmirah
- Educate the general community. The Area Coordinator can help introduce our non-Jewish friends, neighbors, and colleagues to Jewish perspectives on end-of-life concerns. Participating on interfaith panels and presenting at conferences of funeral directors or hospice workers are two venues for sharing with the larger community
- Prepare and distribute annual reports. The Area Coordinator writes a yearly report informing Austin Shmirah members of the total number of shomrim in the group (broken down by congregation of affiliation); number of shifts posted/filled by each congregation and its members during the year; congregations that joined during the year; and more. Informing shomrim of what they’ve collectively accomplished throughout the year gives them a sense of pride, reminds them that many others in our community do similar mitzvot behind the scenes, and inspires them to continue serving
- Organize the Annual Chevrah Kadishah Banquet and study session. It’s traditional for chevrei kadishah (Jewish burial societies) to gather once a year for a festive meal and learning opportunity. The traditional date is Adar 7, which is said to be the yorzeit (anniversary of death) of Moses. The Austin banquet is attended by taharah caregivers, shomrim, rabbis, cantors, and Jewish funeral directors. Spouses and life partners are invited. The banquet has become a joyful opportunity for people who typically serve in near-isolation to meet, greet, eat, and learn from one another
- Sometimes our banquet is a dairy/veggie pot-luck and sometimes it’s a catered event
- Our educational presentations have been made by shomrim, taharah caregivers, clergy, a funeral director, a chaplain, and an end-of-life doula
- Presentations have encompassed an enormous range of topics:
- traditional Jewish views of the soul’s journey after death
- care of transgender deceased
- the ethics of scientific exhibits using actual human bodies
- mourning in the digital age
- death rituals from around the world (slide presentation by a world-traveling anthropologist)
- the Chevrah Kadishah in Jewish art
- Victorian death and mourning rituals (presented by a shomeret who collected Victorian death-related artifacts)
- being the child of a parent who died by suicide
If this list of action items seems intimidating, keep in mind that the majority of them are discretionary, not required. They can be done at one’s leisure, eliminated, or organically replaced with activities that come more naturally to whoever steps into the role of the Austin Shmirah Area Coordinator in the future.
Helpful Traits of an Area Coordinator
Certain personality traits can serve an Area Coordinator well. Some that have been assets to the current Area Coordinator are listed below.
- Expects to live in the community for an extended period of time
- Passionate about serving Jewish deceased in both spiritual and ritual terms
- Willing and able to interface respectfully with people from across the entire Jewish community, from Orthodox to Reform/Reconstructionist and the unaffiliated
- Comfortable allowing each congregation to make its own rules for caring for its deceased, and allowing each shomer to make their own decisions on how and when to serve
- Computer literate
- Enjoys tinkering with new ways to enhance and/or streamline the different elements of a system like this one
- … And let’s just admit it: It doesn’t hurt to have a touch of OCD
Area Coordinators in Training
We who serve the final needs of the deceased are perhaps more aware than most that, at some unknowable time, each of us will someday be on the other side of this mitzvah. Austin Shmirah has two trusted individuals in training who can step into the role of Area Coordinator in the event that a replacement is suddenly needed. If and when that happens, one or both will either take the role on permanently or find a suitable person to lead the organization in the future. If you’d like to be considered for the role of future Austin Shmirah Area Coordinator, please contact the current Area Coordinator (Main Menu->Contact Us).
How is Austin Shmirah responding to the coronavirus?
- As in all matters, each congregation makes its own decisions about how to conduct shmirah during the pandemic
- Every shomer has the right to make their own decisions regarding health and safety at this unprecedented time and always, and every congregation respects that right. If you are not comfortable with what a particular congregation requests of its shomrim during the pandemic, there is no need to serve at this time. Congregations accept that one casualty of the coronavirus may be that more shifts will go unfilled
- Many funeral homes are restricting entrance into the buildings. These restrictions are expected to change as the pandemic situation evolves
- The shift confirmation emails now include a link to online reading and listening materials that shomrim can tap into during their shifts. This is an especially good resource to have when we can’t enter the funeral homes and make use of their book collections
- Congregations are using different strategies to deal with shmirah during the coronavirus. The coordinator’s initial “Shomrim Needed” email should specify what is expected. Strategies include:
- Shmirah at Home: When the shift starts, the shomer on duty finds a quiet place at home to read, meditate, or pray
- To accommodate this new practice, we’ve added a “Shmirah at Home” option to the Signup Calendar dropdown menu used for taking shifts. If your coordinator’s email specifies “Shmirah at Home” as the signup calendar, select that option on the calendar page. That will take you to the correct list of shifts. To avoid confusion, coordinators are advised not even to mention the actual funeral home caring for the deceased in the signup instructions
- One advantage of the Shmirah at Home contingency plan is that a single shomer can serve multiple deceased in the care of different funeral homes at the same time. Other advantages are that dedicated shomrim who’ve relocated out of the Austin area can participate from a distance; and those who are hesitant to drive at night can now take overnight shifts
- Serving from the funeral home parking lot: The shomer drives to the funeral home and performs shimrah in their car, using their own reading materials
- Some congregations may make special arrangements with a funeral home to allow shomrim to enter the building at certain times of the day or night
- Some congregations may choose to suspend shmirah altogether until the danger of the pandemic has passed
- Shmirah at Home: When the shift starts, the shomer on duty finds a quiet place at home to read, meditate, or pray
End of Faq
To learn more about Jewish end-of-life practices, visit https://kavodvnichum.org/.
For support in creating a system based on the Austin Shmirah model in your own community, contact the Area Coordinator (Main Menu->Contact Us).
Having technical problems or need to report something about the website? Please contact the Site Administrator (Main Menu->Contact Us).
To make a donation to Last Responder, select the fund "Ritual - Austin Shmirah/Last Responder" at https://congregationagudasachim.shulcloud.com/form/give.
Thoughts on Shmirah and End of Life
Curated by Gail Tosto
This is a space to share thoughts about the non-practical aspects of shmirah and death/end of life in general. Posts may touch on religious, spiritual, philosophical, psychological, historical, cultural, or mystical topics, as well as poetry or short fiction. Time will tell!
Send your writings on shmirah, death, dying, mourning, etc. to gailtosto at gmail period com. The two of us will take it from there, on an individual basis.
Thank you, Josef Zeevi, for your unfailing creativity in making this website all that it can possibly be.
We Pause(C)2022 Robin Tikvah Barratt
by Robin Tikvah Barratt Here and there our lives pause Where they float, diaphanous And tinged with silver tongues And fleeting fingers of doubt and love..... Here and there we pause to ask The simple questions--May we have water? Could existence change the angle Of the sun above? And we realize that our whole lives Have turned to pulses of soul light And energy. We have moved to the eternity Of poetry and physics. There are eleven months though we have No more words for them.... Eleven months of prayer to keep us from Turning to the anger of ghosts Instead of the remembrances Of our communities..... For here and there we die To be brought forward on anniversaries And kept lace like in hearts Of those with imagination To bring us from part to whole We do not know on who/what's Coming we wait souls as we are Of particles just a bit like the breath We were so confident of before death
What’s So Unique About Death?
by Gail Tosto
Austin Shmirah Area Coordinator
Congregation Agudas Achim Shmirah Coordinator
Aspiring End-of-Life Doula
It goes without saying that death is like no other life experience. The most obvious reasons are that it’s so unknowable, so final, and so mysterious in nature. But I think the uniqueness of death, and its ability to instill fear and repulsion in us, can be broken down into smaller components that are easier to understand. Here I share some personal insights into what makes death so different from everything else we expect to encounter in life.
Death is the only life cycle event that can happen at any point in the lifeline.
With the exception of death, biological and cultural life cycle events happen on a timeline that’s at least somewhat predictable. An example: Once a pregnancy occurs, we can predict that it will take approximately nine months for a live birth to take place. True, the window for survival of premature babies is gradually expanding. Even so, pregnancies lasting more than 10 months are freakishly rare; the record, in 1945, was 375 days. And to date, no child has survived a birth that occurs three days, three weeks, or two months after conception. In short, a live birth can be pinpointed to occur within a window of just a few months.
Likewise, there are upper and/or lower time boundaries for biological milestones such as teething, learning to walk, puberty, child-bearing, and menopause. Some of these ranges can span years or decades – there are early and late bloomers in puberty, and a woman can give birth multiple times over a period of 25 years or more. But it’s unheard of for a one-year-old to become a father or a 90-year-old to get her first period.
Also predictable is the sequence of events. Invariably, a child is conceived before he is born; is born before he teethes (thank goodness!); teethes and is toilet trained before she enters puberty; and enters puberty before she reproduces.
Socially and culturally as well, there’s a general lower age limit for events such as bar/bat mitzvah or first communion, school attendance, getting a driver’s license, quinceañera, high school graduation, marriage, retirement, etc. These lower age limits are culturally defined and have occasional exceptions – the genius who goes to college at age 11 and the child bride, for example. But even these rare exceptions are rarely shocking surprises for those involved. We can see these events coming months or years in advance. When a baby is born, we can predict what year he’s likely to graduate high school, give or take a year.
The exception is the timing and predictability of death. Death is the only life cycle event that can really sneak up on us. It can happen at any time after conception, before or after any other milestone. It has a myriad of possible causes, including accidents, diseases, acts of violence, and natural disasters.
Death is also the only life cycle event besides conception that everyone is guaranteed to have. Not all fetuses live to be born. Not all infants live to teethe, walk, or be toilet trained. Not all teenagers graduate high school. Not all adults enter the work force, lose their virginity, marry, or have children. Only conception and death – the very beginning and the very end of life – are guaranteed for all.
The unpredictability of when and how death will occur is one of the things that make it so frightening. We are shocked when a person dies of an unexpected cause or dies before experiencing most of the other life cycle events that we had anticipated for them.
Death is the only thing nature requires of us for which we don’t seem to have an instinct.
In order for any species to thrive without overrunning the earth, a critical mass of its members must accomplish a number of tasks: survive and thrive into maturity; reproduce; provide the next generation with whatever nurturing is necessary to reach independence; and, finally, get out of the way – in other words, die, replenish the nutrients in the soil, and make room for new life. All but the last task require our cooperation, and instincts help ensure that cooperation. A variety of survival instincts compel us eat, sleep, and avoid danger. Once we reach reproductive age, our sex drive and mating instincts enable us to conceive and birth a new generation. Maternal (parental?) instincts help us usher our young into adulthood, whereupon the cycle repeats. All of this entails considerable work, sacrifice, and initiative. Instincts help enough of us to follow through.
But that last obligation in the circle of life – to get out of the way by dying – doesn’t seem to be tied to any clear instinct. That’s all for the best. A death instinct would counteract all the other instincts that help keep us alive long enough to accomplish all of our other tasks. In any case, a death instinct is unnecessary because death requires little to no cooperation from the dying individual.
I suspect the universal repulsion we feel toward death can be accounted for largely by our lack of an instinct to seek it out, coupled with the presence of so many other instincts that help us stay alive.
Death is the only life event with which the “experts” have less experience than the ones they help through it.
All babies are birthed by people who have personally been born. A woman who’s having her first baby can find plenty of other women, including obstetricians and midwives, who’ve given birth themselves. If you want to earn a PhD, become a skilled artisan, or learn to play the piano, you can study or apprentice under someone who has already mastered what you’re aspiring to. If you’re diagnosed with an unfamiliar disease, you can find a support group of others who “really get it” and can offer practical advice. You may even be able to find a “double expert”: a specialist in that disease who lives with it herself.
The one area in which we cannot get assistance from someone who’s been through it personally is death. Not a single one of those who care for us at the end of our lives – health care providers, hospice workers, chaplains and clergy, end-of-life doulas, funeral directors, taharah caregivers, shomrim, medical examiners, hearse drivers, grave diggers, headstone engravers, etc. – not one of these “experts” has yet been through the experience of dying. Even a person who’s had a “near death experience” and feels they were revived after dying did not get all the way through death. Death is unique in obliging us to turn to less experienced people for help.
Death is a rare life event through which no two people can help each other.
We can meet many of our needs by buddying up with one other person in a tradeoff. A pair of neighbors can water each other’s plants while one or the other is away. Two hairstylists can arrange to cut each other’s hair for free. Two best friends can share each other’s secrets, babysit each other’s children, lend each other money, and console each other in times of mourning. Once again, death is the clear exception: You cannot bury anyone who buries you. Care of the dead is not a closed-loop buddy system. The chain of caregivers for the dead always needs new links, because no one who has received such care can ever give it to anyone else who needs it in the future.
Death is the life cycle event that we’re most hesitant to prepare for, and most likely to be discouraged from preparing for by others.
Imagine you’re about to birth or adopt a child; or you’re a tween who’s a year or two away from bar/bat mitzvah; or you’re a high school senior about to graduate; or you’re engaged to be married. Now imagine refusing to prepare yourself for the upcoming event or even to acknowledge that it’s going to happen. Would that be wise? How would the people around you react to your refusal to learn to change a diaper, practice your Haftarah reading, either enlist in the military or fill out a college or job application, or plan your upcoming wedding?
Now imagine instead that you do acknowledge that your major, life-changing event is on the horizon and you are willing to prepare for it. You take a Lamaze class, or practice your Haftarah reading, or apply to college, or attend a workshop on communication with your fiancé. In response, your obstetrician, your parents, your rabbi, your guidance counselor, or your best man assure you that there’s no need to focus on the upcoming event. They advise you to live in the moment and never lose hope that the event can be avoided indefinitely. Imagine that when you talk about your fears, concerns, curiosity, or hopes concerning the big occasion, the people in your life uncomfortably change the subject or try to convince you that it’s not actually going to happen.
This is how many of us treat the topic of death. For many, any discussion of/preparation for the inevitable – buying a burial plot, writing a will, talking about your funeral preferences with your family – is considered morbid, taboo, or even a jinx and a self-fulfilling prophesy. Even people who are clearly approaching the end of their lives can have trouble talking about the details or finding someone who’s willing to explore the topic with them. In short, death is our most neglected, most denied life cycle event.
While death is a natural life cycle event, it’s also naturally mysterious and frightening. For many, the entire topic is repulsive or taboo. I believe there are specific reasons for which reactions of fear and denial are so commonplace. While death will inevitably remain a great mystery to us during our lifetimes, perhaps our fears around it can be identified and explored to our benefit. Perhaps such exploration can help to ease our fear and dread of this great unknown.
by Lori Kline, Austin Shmirah Member
Outside my window, I view blades of grass bend in the breeze and imagine softness of the wind against my cheek. Sunlight and shade create a patchwork on the lawn. Were I outside, would the blades tickle my bare feet? I ponder this plane of existence. What is the meitah’s? Does she “see?” Does she experience the breeze as I do? Or is all different? Does she miss her favorite flower, or treat or relative or friend? Is she even aware of them? I imagine she is free, perhaps soaring like an eagle above. I’ve always wanted to shluf on a cloud. Can she now? I hope so.
Undo it, Take it Back
by Nessa Rapoport; published in the magazine Lilith, Winter 2001-2002
Submitted by Harriet Saikin (member of Temple Beth Shalom, Austin, TX)
Undo it, take it back, make every day the previous one
until I am returned to the day before the one that made
you gone. Or set me on an airplane traveling west,
crossing the date line again and again, losing this day,
then that, until the day of loss still lies ahead, and you
are here instead of sorrow.
Nessa Rapoport is author of a novel, Preparing for Sabbath, and of A Woman’s Book of Grieving, from which this prose poem is drawn.
Getting My Bearings in a New Tradition
By Michel Munguia (member of Temple Beth Shalom, Austin, TX)
As a night owl, I prefer to do late-night and wee-early-morning shmirah shifts, but actually going to the funeral homes at those hours is creepy. It’s not being with the dead that I have a problem with. The problem is the live beings that may be lurking outside the building at those hours. So virtual shmirah is perfect for me!!!
On the other hand, since we switched to virtual shmirah, the Jewish concept of the four higher aspects of the soul – Ruach, Neshamah, Chayah and Yechida – staying close to the body after the lowest aspect, the Nefesh, has left it, seems to be fading from my mind. So I’ve been looking for a way to reconnect with this concept.
If the Nefesh has suffered tremendously or separates from the body quickly and without warning, the other aspects of the soul will have suffered as well. They need to heal before they can leave this plane. A person doing shmirah helps in this healing by staying not only with the body, but also with the other aspects of the soul, so that they can move on and leave this plane peacefully. It is sad to think of how many people out there do not have the benefit of this process. Their souls just roam amongst us trying to understand what happened at the end of the life of their physical partner, the body.
In virtual shmirah, shomrim cannot sit physically near the body. But I have found meaning in another spiritual concept, in which the remaining aspects of the soul travel to their favorite places throughout the world until they finally leave this plane. This is the first and last time that the soul experiences the break of the astral silver thread to the body, which happens because the Nefesh is gone.
I have come to think that we can summon the soul’s various aspects to us, as they have the freedom to travel if they are not too traumatized to leave the body.
In sitting near the body, I had never thought to bring my laptop with me. I know the meit/ah only by the obituary provided in the designated place to sit. As we have gone virtual, I am more prone to utilize my laptop to access the tools on the websites of Kavod v’Nichum, the funeral home, and Austin Shmirah. I have had time to read the obituary (bio) of the deceased prior to sitting. This way I can find the inspiration to become familiar with the aspects of the deceased person’s soul and more easily summon them to me for our “visit.”
I found, with my first virtual shmirah, that the meitah, Tegan, was a vibrant, activist lover of life. She had a great sense of humor, cared for humanity, and was a warrior who had won many battles against cancer but eventually lost the war. She lived and died in California, 1,700 miles from where I was doing shmirah for her. I thought a person like Tegan would be so bored with me just sitting there reading Tehilim and other inspirational literature. I decided it would be pretty rude of me to summon her to travel all the way from California just for that!
So instead, I stepped outside of the box and did the following.
- I introduced myself as her shomeret and thanked her for coming to Austin, Texas to visit. I played Jewish liturgical music for her and some calm Klezmer. I sang along a little bit for her.
- We (yes, as time went by, I sensed her presence enough to imagine that we were in this together) watched some videos of cantors and choirs singing, sacred music and poetry from Israel, and sources from the Virtual Shmirah Library (which is great!) at https://www.jewish-funerals.org/virtual-shmirah-box/.
- I read Tehilim and some of Ecclesiastes (Chapter 3 is very apropos to what we are going through right now), with background music.
- I read the interpretation of Moses' death from Ellen Frankel's The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore.
When my shift was coming to an end, I told Tegan it was time for her to go to the next shomer(et) who was summoning her. I told her that I had had a wonderful time during our visit. I thanked her for the honor of her visit and wished her a continued joyous journey to the next plane.
Finally, I recited the Closing Prayer.
I know this way of doing shmirah is a bit unconventional, but then, so was Tegan!
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