Similar to the Irish tradition of remaining with the body of a loved one until burial, Shemira is the Jewish ritual of attending or guarding the body. The difference is that the Shomer or Shomeret usually sits and prays alone and may never have known the deceased in life. The Irish tradition is one of family and friends being with the recently departed. Although when Tanta died Chuck and I did go to the funeral home and spent a few moments with her and with the Shomer who was attending her at that time.
It was a comfort to us to know that from the moment we escorted Tanta’s body to the funeral van, throughout the process of taharah and until we helped bury her body next to her parents and her brother, that she would always be accompanied. It was especially comforting to the caregivers who had been with Tanta around the clock in her final months to know that she would never be alone. For them it meant that their work would be carried on.
Growing up, my Dad would often tell us that when his time came he wanted to be laid out in the living room. He thought the sofa where he would stretch out to watch the eleven o’clock news followed by “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” would be just the right spot. Dad was of Irish and Scottish descent but even his Scottish side had come from Ireland originally, so the roots ran deep. I wish we could have honored his wish. But by the time his parents passed away decades before him we were already bringing our dearly departed to funeral homes or funeral parlors - named with a nod to the time when families were at the heart of the process - and that’s where they “went out of”.
The first funeral I remember was of my Dad’s mother. I was just eight. There was some discussion in the extended family that I was too young to attend the open casketed wake. My parents disagreed and I attended. I’m so glad I did. I could see Grandma, kneel down and say a little prayer and begin to understand the rituals of death and burial.
Today is my Dad’s yahrzeit. As I write this, his memorial candle burns brightly. Twenty-four years ago today Dad died. He had been surrounded by his wife and three daughters all day. Late in the evening my mother sent us home from the hospital. While I was driving home in the cold and dark from Massachusetts to Connecticut, Dad breathed his last; his wife of nearly forty-two years by his side. I wondered about so many things that night. What I never questioned was that Dad’s death was a release and a relief for him. He had been so very ill for so very long. The Alzheimer’s Disease had cruelly robbed him and all of us of the warm, intelligent, funny man who worked hard, sang beautifully, told a great story, and loved his family above all else. At times in his life Dad struggled - as do we all - but his love for all of us never wavered.
Dad wasn’t laid out in our living room. He and Mom had sold that big old house a few years before and Mom was living alone in a condominium. Dad went out of the funeral home his father-in-law had gone out of. There was no Shomer in that tradition, but we did have an open casketed wake in the front parlor of the funeral home and his children and grandchildren were there to visit and attend. We said our goodbyes, had a proper funeral mass in the church Dad helped bring to fruition and buried him next to his parents and brothers.
Zichrono liveracha ~ His memory is a blessing.
And it always shall be...
You can read the story behind how a Catholic daughter came to light a Jewish yahrzeit candle for her father by clicking here. My poem, “Your Yahrzeit” can also be found there.