06 December 2014

Hamakom Yimachem

I am on an airplane on my way to a funeral in New York. And I have been thinking about the body in death. When a person dies she is no more, but the body until burial remains. There is no consciousness of death in death; the dead do not know that they are dead. The dead do not know anything; they have once known but they no longer know; they do not even know that they have now become merely a body. The dead do not dream from which they will awaken. Once animate, the dead are no longer animated: the body is in death a slab of once-sentient flesh. Nuland writes that the living’s awareness of the death is immediate: all rigor disappears from the body, the skin turns grey, and, no longer warmed by the movement of blood, grows  soon cold and stiff. The body in death ceases to be anything but a body; once it was a person but is no more.
And yet . . . the respect shown the body (the met) in Jewish tradition astounds me. No final autopsy occurs because the body must not be defiled, though it has now become acceptable, even honorable to donate to others whatever organ remains viable and usable.  The body is carefully and ritually washed and dressed in a pure shroud and tallit and prepared for burial by a chevra kadisha, a holy group of people trained in the practice, without removing one iota of any material from the body: the body returns to the ground, even to God, as whole as the day it was born.
And finally, until the moment of burial, the body is never left alone. Over the course of the hours before internment shomrim sit with the body. These shomrim are guards, guardians, who keep the body company. Ah, I am certain that at one time this custom began in order to keep the vermin away from the dead: Jesus was placed in a cave that was then made impenetrable by a large rock. And though I know that in death there is no consciousness, I like to consider now that these shomrim serve to ease even the unknowing dead to its ultimate aloneness, remind the dead that it was (and remains) loved, and until it joins the minions of those who have died before, it will not be left alone. Or maybe, and with equal validity, these shomrim sit with the body for their own leave-takings and spiritual comforts.

I hope that when I come to die, the body will be cared for as if it were still me, and will be protected to its grave by a cadre of shomrim who loved me. Of course, if this occurs I will never know, but it is comforting in life to think that in death I remain cared for and loved though I, no longer I, will be ignorant of the thoughtfulness.


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