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. Some prefer to call it “accompaniment” as we are ensuring that the soul does not feel alone during this time in which it is adjusting to not having a body. It is traditionally done from the time of death until burial.
Those who do shmirah are usually not the primary mourners. Sometimes they are grandchildren, sometimes they are community volunteers, sometimes they are friends, they can even be students. In some communities, teens are matched with adults. In some communities, non-Jews do shmirah along with Jews. Shmirah can be a good way for out-of-town relatives to re-connect with the deceased and the mourning process.
What shomrim do during shmirah is up to the individual. Most read Psalms, poems, songs or other relevant readings (that the deceased might enjoy) during their time with the deceased. Some will speak words of comfort to the newly departed soul, who is believed to be hovering near the body. Many Chevrah Kadisha teams provide a “shmirah box” or cabinet containing a variety of reading materials for the long hours spent with the deceased. It is important to know that just being there is also considered comforting, so periods of silent contemplation and meditation are also acceptable, as long as the focus is on comforting the dead and being present for them.
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.
For a summary of what this work feels like to participants, see Gail Tosto’s article about What Shmirah Means to Shomrim.
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 today’s gender-fluid world, team composition can vary from situation to situation.)
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.
The taharah ritual is composed of five main parts. The ritual does two things: it helps the soul of the deceased move on, and it purifies the vessel that held the now-detached soul — the body — so the soul can let go more easily. So these five parts work on two levels — the spiritual and the physical — simultaneously. These are the five parts of the taharah ritual, more in-depth specifics of which can be found on the Taharah Details page, each of which is accompanied by specific liturgy composed of readings and prayers.
- Preparations and opening prayers
- Cleansing the body physically (rechitzah)
- Washing and purifying the deceased spiritually (taharah)
- Dressing the body in the burial garments (halbashah) and placing it in the casket (halanah)
- The closing prayers and debriefing
(Note that part 3 has the same name as the overall ritual.)
When there is a death, the Chevrah Kadisha members are called upon to arrive anonymously, perform this ceremonial ritual in beauty and with greatest respect, and then, just as anonymously, disappear. This is not a secret ritual; rather, it is done privately to protect the dignity of the deceased. The ceremony is very sensitive to the sacredness of the task and the modesty of the deceased. It can be thought of as midwifing the soul of the deceased from this world into the next. It includes a number of prayers and readings in both English and Hebrew. In general, only men perform a taharah for a man, women for a woman, and variations of this team structure happen when appropriate. The burial shroud is generally a white, hand-sewn cotton or linen garment that is designed to mimic the clothes of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest of Temple times, for in death we are all equal and should be treated as the holiest of our People.
The performance of the taharah is a holy act. Maintaining an atmosphere of respect, dignity, and reverence is paramount during the entire time the Chevrah Kadisha members are in the taharah room. With this in mind, it is a common convention (minhag) to appoint a leader for each taharah, considering the many possibilities for variations in custom and details in the performance of these procedures, as well as variations in experience and knowledge of the members performing the taharah,. The primary responsibility of the leader is to make all decisions, thereby avoiding opportunities for confusion, conflict or disrespect during the ritual. Generally, a briefing of the taharah team prior to the taharah, and a debriefing afterward are done to ensure the health (both physical and spiritual/emotional) and safety of the team, as well as to ensure that the deceased is given maximum respect.
The prayers and readings recited during the ritual have both intellectual and vibrational value for both the deceased and the members of the chevrah who are involved. Some chevrah members have these readings memorized and hence do not need to use taharah manuals (books containing the taharahliturgy and guidance as to how to perform the ritual). Others always rely on a manual. Some groups have everyone recite the prayers, while other groups have a single reader or pair of readers. Some recite everything in Hebrew only, others in English only, and others in both languages, sometimes simultaneously.
This is sacred work. When we perform a taharah, we are helping a Divine Being, a soul, move from one realm to another (from this world to the next). This is not an everyday kind of activity for most of us. So when we do this work we should specifically remind ourselves of the holiness of our task and the responsibilities we undertake to show respect and dignity to this Divine Soul as we do this work. Not only must we treat the body of the deceased with the respect and care due to a holy vessel, we must keep in mind that the soul is in the room, aware of all we do, and usually quite appreciative of our efforts. We should address the deceased as if they are still in the room, tell them what we are going to do and, when our task is complete, remind them that we did our best to honor them. When team members keep the soul in mind at every phase while doing the taharah, the team’s kavanah (intention) and reverence are magnified, their awareness is expanded, and the entire procedure is enhanced.
(To better understand this ritual, along with the feelings involved in the performance of this sacred work, see Jewish Rites of Death: Stories of Beauty and Transformation, by Richard A. Light.)