The Jewish Do Not Leave Their Dead Bodies Alone

(children intuitively understand)

One of the great sorrows when my mother died was leaving her body alone in the hospice facility after she died.  Indeed, for my sister it went beyond sorrow into trauma.  The problem was that her death was unexpected and she hadn’t done any advanced planning for the disposition of her remains.  All any of us really knew was that she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in a bay that she loved.

None of us (ten kids frantically assembling from all over the world) had a clue what to do.  We didn’t know the laws governing human remains and it was a shock to find out 1) how much paperwork is involved and 2) how much time it takes to complete it.  To our dismay we discovered that due to the lack of advance planning it would take a full week before she could be legally cremated.  None of us was in a position to wait that long…it had been hard enough just to get there in time…but more importantly, even if we could have stayed, there wasn’t really any way to stay with her body.  Cremation facilities don’t provide waiting rooms next to their refrigerators.

Turns out our culture isn’t very family-friendly where its bodies are concerned.

So instead my sister and I closed the door, gathered warm water and cloths, and bathed her body ourselves there in the room where she died, loving, tender, and stricken as we said our final goodbyes.  Then we reluctantly walked out of the bedroom and facility, climbed into a car, and drove away.

It was awful.  Leaving her all alone like that, vulnerable and helpless with no one to protect her.  It felt like we’d abandoned her to strangers and I’ll always have deep regrets about it.  But lacking any kind of long history and established customs for that kind of thing we just weren’t prepared to do it any differently.

Which is why I was fascinated to run across a beautiful, poignant article in the New York Times titled Keeping Them Company At The End.  It’s written by Joy Levitt, a rabbi with congregations in New Jersey and New York, and in it she tells the story of sitting with a woman and the body of her dead husband until the doctor could get to the house and pronounce.

It caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  One, she refers to a kind of awareness that I often hear described by people working with hospice; the recognition of “what an unusual and extraordinary privilege it was to be in that bedroom.” And she also does a wonderful job of capturing the illuminated quality of love which so often permeates the room around the time of dying.  But what started me reminiscing about my mother’s death in particular was her description of the Jewish tradition of guarding the bodies of their dead.

“Jews do not leave dead bodies alone. Communities appoint people called “shomrim” — protectors — to watch over the deceased from the time of death until the funeral. It is considered a “mitzvah” — a commanded act — and a holy thing to do, but its origins probably date to a time when there weren’t adequate ways to protect bodies from rodents (or perhaps evil spirits) during the night.”

What a great tradition.  It made me wish I was Jewish for a minute.   Not surprisingly, the white-Protestant-repressed-denial-of-death background I come from doesn’t have much to offer in this area.

I was just looking around online and found some of the following resources for anyone interested in a non-traditional approach to care of the body and funerals.

Home Funerals (lots of great links in this one)

A Family Undertaking (trailer for a really, really beautiful and inspiring documentary.  I watched this a while back and just loved it.)

Final Passages website

And to find out information on the actual laws governing disposition of human remains in my state, I did a search for Idaho laws governing disposition of human remains and found the existing legislationI imagine some variation of that would work for most states.

And by the way, if any of you have a minute, I’d love to hear about experiences you’ve had or resources you’ve found, too.  Thanks!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011