Shmira: Accompanying The Dead

May 15, 2012 | 2 comments

“I’m here for the body,” I told the clerk at the Albuquerque Sunport air cargo building. Actually, I was there to accompany the body to the funeral home to fulfill the Jewish tradition of shmira. That’s accompanying the dead to their final resting place and watching over the body before burial.

This body had come a long way, and still had a ways to go. But thanks to the coordination of our local Chevrah Kaddisha, the Jewish burial society, no body has to take its final journey alone. It’s rare that we are called upon to do shmira, as Albuquerque isn’t a huge hotbed of Orthodox Judaism, but we rose to the occasion.

The deceased was a young lady who died of food poisoning at the age of 30 while visiting her grandmother in Florida. Given the distance from her home in New Mexico, cremation was considered. The traditionally observant (a.k.a. frum) members of her family prevailed.

With the help of the Chabad organization in Florida, her body was given a tahara, washed and dressed in the traditional manner, then placed in a simple pine box. The funeral home in Florida arranged for her body to be flown as air cargo to Albuquerque.

It was 9:00 p.m. when I arrived, shortly after the flight got in. The air cargo clerk told me the body would be brought to the air cargo area in about 20 minutes. A couple of dogs and some body parts were also being delivered for pick up. I waited in my car for the funeral home representative to arrive.

Rose from the funeral home drove up in a Ford mini-van. The funeral home saves the hearse for funerals and uses more prosaic vehicles for this kind of behind-the-scenes work. We went into the office and waited our turn.

A one-armed delivery man got the body parts. It was his second trip to air cargo that day. Three people picked up two dogs – a happy reunion. Then it was our turn to get the body. Rose signed the paperwork to take delivery.

The casket was encased in an Air Tray, basically a sturdy cardboard box on top of a wooden base that looks like a tray. The air cargo clerk moved it with a forklift to the edge of the loading dock. Rose backed the mini-van up and opened the back door. The box slid in, and with some adjustment of the front seats, fit tightly inside the van.

I followed the van from the airport to the funeral home’s facility in Rio Rancho. Songs about going home played on the radio. I pondered this young woman’s life cut short and her body’s journey, of which I was now a part.

The funeral director and a helper meet us at the funeral home. They unload the box onto a wheeled trolley and take it inside. By the time I park my car and walk inside, the Air Tray had been removed and the plain pine casket is positioned in a slumber room. A tall candle burns on a table next to the casket.

The funeral director offers coffee and directions for getting in touch if I need anything. Then I am locked in the funeral home at 10:30 p.m. All alone with a body.

It’s quiet – except for occasional mysterious sounds in other parts of the building. I open my Bible to start reading psalms, as a shomer, one who watches, is supposed to do. Ironically, the first reading I come upon is Ezekiel 37, the Valley of the Dry Bones. It seemed like a good way to start.

I skip around various psalms, then read the Song of Solomon, since it so celebrates life, love, and the human body. When we do a tahara, we read passages from the Song of Songs that celebrate the male and female form.

As it gets close to midnight, I start to feel sleepy. Suddenly, my cell phone jolts me wide awake. It’s Linda and Jill, the ladies for the next shift, calling.

“We’re at the wrong funeral home. We had to call your husband at home for your cell number and find out where you are,” said Linda. “Sorry we woke him up.”

That’s okay, I needed to be awakened myself, I thought.

Shomers may get sleepy, but they are present. They guard the body and read to the deceased until there’s a proper burial. After the funeral, attention shifts to focus on the family and support them in their grief during the shiva (or shivah) period of mourning. You can read more about that in other posts on this blog.

A Good Goodbye