“Watching Over My Grandmother,” by Bari Weiss. The Wall Street Journal, 2/18/2016.
My own mother was basically wise, but sometimes not—basically kind, but sometimes not. She missed on Judaism which she dismissed as inferior to Presbyterianism simply because she did not know much about it and misunderstood the little she did know. She was typical of her times in suburban America. Typical even today.
This WSJ article describes the wisdom of Judaism in just one tiny aspect of life: caring for the dead.
In Judaism, a body is never left alone between the time of death and the time of burial. This tradition, called shmirah, dates from a time when rodents and grave robbers were a real threat. (Logically, I do not believe a dead body retains any essence of the person, but still, I have felt uncomfortable thinking of a loved one lying alone at night somewhere in a dark funeral home. I am also appalled at the desecration required to prepare a body for viewing.)
Care of the body is usually done in the funeral home by a team of volunteers in the community’s holy society, the hevra kadisha, but Weiss’s grandmother died at home on the Sabbath, when nothing can be moved, no work can be done. That is why it fell to Weiss and her family to watch over the body in her grandmother’s home for this one extra day.
The Jewish Sabbath runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Weiss and her sister shared the early Saturday morning shift. They sat in her grandmother’s bedroom with the covered body and reminisced over books and photos from their childhood with their grandmother. (I need to know more about this. I assume the body was not yet embalmed, so was the room left cold? Was the body sealed in an impervious bag? See posting “Woodlands Cemetery, No Noxious Effluvia,” 2013/09/04)
Soon after sundown, the body was taken to the funeral home and to the care of the hevra kadisha, people the family knew and sat next to in synagogue. The heva kadisha are not just guards. They follow the detailed rituals of washing and preparing the body for burial in a quiet room with prayers only spoken in Hebrew. The rituals are segregated: men prepare the men, women prepare the women. The last prayer asks for forgiveness if the dignity of the body has been violated in any way.
After washing and dressing the body in simple linen shrouds, her grandmother was buried in a plain wooden box constructed without metal to fulfill the verse that says, “For you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Her grave was filled in by her friends and family, as a chesed shel emet, a true act of kindness because it cannot be repaid.
“When so much in modern life is outsourced to strangers,” Weiss tells us, “in caring for someone after death, and being expected to take part in rituals at once deeply uncomfortable and comforting . . . is something clarifying, maybe even purifying, . . . forcing us to examine our own lives and deeds.”
These death rituals serve both the living and the dead, and therein lies the wisdom.