Death can come into our lives suddenly. Like a puppy in a store filled with glass, it can destroy everything in its path. Other times, we have been preparing for its acquaintance for a long time. It breaks the heart when you get that phone call, with a lifetime of emotion on the end of the line.
There is nothing as important as who we love. Love is what defines a life. Who we love on this earth, that is our story. I knew in an abstract way the tradition of Chevra Kadisha. Organized and specific rituals tell us how to proceed with the un proceedable. Ritual gives structure to a heart run amok. My mother Meredith is how I understood what chevra kadisha provided for both the dead and the living. I went with her many years ago to prepare a met for burial. It was transformative in a quiet way. It was in that moment that I understood what Jewish burial rituals do — they elevate, celebrate and soothe. Ritual is used to mark time as significant, to give moments, awareness and power. Ritual is the human equivalent of a sunset or a quiet snowy moment, where you feel your breath catch. Ritual distinguishes time, makes it beautiful, Awe-some, and bigger than just this world and your life. When I was with my mother doing the ritual known as tahara, the ritual bathing and preparing of a body for burial, the woman worked together, singing in rhythm. There was so much depth in their actions, giving meaning to one of the hardest parts of life. The body is washed in both a physical and spiritual way and the met is then dressed in a white cotton outfit. After that is done, the next ritual is to sit shmira, the watching over the body. Jewish tradition dictates that from the time of death to burial, the body must be watched over, or guarded. There is an idea that the spirit of the person that has died is still around in the beginning, perhaps saying goodbye to this life, and those they have loved. Watching over the body is a way of helping the soul say goodbye, supporting the spirit in letting go. Just as there is a team of people that support a birth, those that take on the honor of shomer, help usher a neshama into what come next.
It has been a little over a year since I received a phone call letting me know that my lifelong friend, Ben, had died unexpectedly. I wanted the rituals of the Chevra Kadisha to help him transition; I wanted more for him than an empty cold room. Ben was living in a small mountain town at the time of his death. I reached out to many to try to make tahara happen for him. So many people came to sit shmira with him — friends and strangers. The strangers became friends, sharing in a ferrying of a soul. I bonded with a woman who had come to be a shomer; she too had lost someone too soon and too young. There is healing in a space that allows for the heart to be broken open, and for you not to be okay. Shiva and the months after continue our tradition of mourning. These rituals permit the human heart to feel the truest feelings, to be in that most unique place of grief, unencumbered by daily obligation. The Jewish process of mourning creates a space in our life, to honor ourselves and those that are no longer with us. I will always remember Ben as he was; warm brown eyes and warrior spirit, that gave this earth and everyone he met, goodness and light. I am thankful that there was chevra kadisha to help guide us in celebrating our lives, to witness how our lives preciously connected in love, like a crystal blue river stretched out before us, on a day I know I will remember forever.
The Boulder Chevra Kadisha invites the community to its Annual Meeting, Sunday February 25th, 3:45 pm at the Boulder JCC.
Chevra Kadisha: Holy Society (Jewish burial society)
Taharah: Ritual cleansing of the dead
Shemirah: Guarding; Watching (time sitting with the met after tahara and before burial)
Shomer: to guard or watch
Shiva: Seven days of formal mourning for the deceased