Rituals Between Death and Burial
Rituals Between Death and Burial
Between the time of death and the actual burial, there are two Jewish rituals—taharah and shmirah—that have to do with the deceased. These are discussed here, and are independent from the mourning activities of the family. For more details on mourning, as well as taharah, and shmirah rituals and practices, see the Jewish End-of-Life Practices page.
What is Shmirah?
It is thought that between death and burial, the soul of the deceased is present, hovering near the body, perhaps traveling back and forth between the body and the home in which it lived, aware of what is going on, but confused as to where it belongs, since it is now separated from the body with which it identified for a lifetime.
During this liminal time Jews, demonstrate ultimate kindness by keeping the soul company, comforting it, and reassuring it as it adjusts to its next phase in the olam haba, the world to come. This act of compassion takes the form of “watchers,” people who sit with or near the body, reciting Psalms or other readings, praying, and talking to the soul directly. These watchers are called shomrim, and the act of doing this kindness is called shmirah, both names coming from the Hebrew root shin-mem-resh having to do with “guarding” (the body). Sitting shmirah does not require touching the dead, or even being in the same room with the body, although often shomrim are within sight of the refrigerator that holds the deceased, and sometimes are in the same room as the coffin.
Shmirah often involves many people, over a number of days, as burial today is not always immediate, but can be delayed in order for family members to assemble from distant locations. Often shomrim will sit for a few hours, then be replaced by others who sit for a while, then others, and so forth for the entire time between death and burial. Sometimes, shomrim sit in pairs, especially if one or both of them are new to the task. These shomrim are often volunteers, but can be paid personnel whose job it is to do comforting in this way.
Each community handles this differently, but most chevrot arrange for some sort of coverage to ensure the soul is not left alone. In some cases, when personnel are not available to sit with the body, a candle is lit to represent the intention to comfort the soul, as well as the light of the soul itself and the holiness of life.
Some communities have a “shmirah box” in which various readings and books of Psalms are included, so the shomrim can choose among these during their time with the deceased. Other communities simply have such resources available at the funeral home where the body is resting. It is up to the shomer as to what they choose to read or say while with the deceased.
Jewish tradition explains shmirah in two ways — a physical guarding and a spiritual guarding.
Physical guarding is designed to protect the body. Originally, this was protection from animals, body thieves, and others who might try to violate the body in some way. Much of these concerns are not relevant today but they may play a role in other kinds of physical protection. Body mix-ups have occurred. There is a role for shomrim to play in confirming identification and maintaining a chain of custody. Ideally, a shomer would check the identification tags of the body and the casket, and verify with the funeral home logs, and then confirm identification with the name of the person they received with their shomer assignment.
Shmirah is also about guarding the spirit of the person who has died. It is a process of soul guiding; in the hours and days after a death, the deceased hovers in close proximity of the body. Reading of Psalms during the time of shmirah is designed to help the soul move on.
But what does that mean? How can a person reading Psalms in the presence of a dead body help the soul in transition? Many feel the process is quite simple: think of soul guiding as a contemplative nonverbal communication between the world of the living and the realm of the non-material soul. Sitting in front of the deceased, reciting Psalms, one should hold an attitude of a loving connection with the person who has died. In the heart and in the mind, imagine sending a message that says “It’s okay to leave this material world behind and move on.”
The task requires trusting intuition and one’s inner voices, listening inwardly for a response and being attentive to a meaningful experience. Soul guiding is not a science, it’s an art.
What is Taharah?
Jewish belief is that all human beings are holy, having been created in the image of G-d. Therefore, we are to treat all people with dignity and respect, both living and dead. When someone dies, their body, which was the vehicle for their holy soul in this life, must be treated gently and with the same respect one would treat a living human being. Just as we wash and dress a newborn baby as they enter the world, we now wash and dress the deceased as they leave this world. The ritual process by which this is done is called taharah, from the Hebrew root tet-hey-resh having to do with purification. It is accompanied by a specific liturgy based in Kabbalah, an overview of which can be viewed here. This ritual is performed by a dedicated group in the community whose job it is to care for the dead. They are called the Chevrah Kadisha, or “holy society”.
In order to preserve the dignity and modesty of the deceased, there are usually two teams within the Chevrah Kadisha, a men’s team for preparing male deceased, and a women’s team for female deceased. These teams usually assemble a few hours prior to burial to do the taharah.
In death, Jews are all equal before G-d, so Jews dress all deceased the same, namely, in garments that represent those worn by the holiest of our People, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, who on Yom Kippur would enter the Holy of Holies to pray for the redemption of the people. These burial garments are called tachrichim, and are made of simple cotton or linen with no pockets (there’s no need to take anything with you), buttons, or snaps, and generally include a shirt, a jacket, pants, and a head covering, with slight variations between women and men.