Experiences of a Certain Watcher - A Jewish Story



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Experiences of a Certain Watcher

Copyright by Yaakov Branfman

  In the beginning, I worked in maintenance in a large synagogue. "Biggest synagogue between St. Louis and Los Angeles," the young assistant rabbi told me proudly. I had been there about a week when I was asked to help set up for the funeral of a well- known restaurant owner. I came early in the morning to clean up the sanctuary, do a quick vacuum job, lay out the prayer books, and turn on the air conditioning. When I first walked into the room, the stark presence of the casket had shocked me and literally stopped me in my tracks. It was an ornately carved casket, and it had a powerful presence, sitting by itself on the altar waiting for the people to file in.

  As my supervisor continued on and showed me what needed to be done, I wanted to shout at him, "How can you just walk around like that? Don't you know what's here?" Though I went about my tasks, I was feeling strange to be this close to a casket, and I watched it somewhat out of the corner of my eye.

  My upbringing had been a normal American one, where the reality of death just doesn't seem to fit in with the good life. The people in my life who had died, i.e. grandparents, or an occasional family friend, just seemed to pass out of the scene and disappear into the far distance. When a contemporary died, I suffered with the loss, but I certainly didn't have anything to do with the body.

  Now I was deeply shaken by this experience of moving around the sanctuary in front of the deceased who was lying up there on the altar in his casket. I felt that over there was a very real presence waiting for the events of the day to unfold.

  I even found myself wondering when the air conditioning switched on, if somehow the deceased was grateful. Whenever I looked towards the altar and saw the casket there by itself, I felt that I had never seen anything more profoundly alone.

  Once I finished setting up, I went out to the back of the building while the funeral progressed. As I drank my coffee in the sun, I thought of the cool air conditioning, the plush seats, the important people, and the words being spoken in the sanctuary.

  I found myself hoping that all was going well for the restaurant man who was also an outsider to the proceedings. I imagined the funeral where the action was unfolding as "life," with the restaurant man on one side-- the ending-- and I on the other side-- the beginning. What we had in common was that we were both outsiders, "watching."

  I sat out in the sun with my fellow workers during our coffee break, and I began to think of the restaurant owner as my close friend. I was hoping that everything was going well for him now. I had never known him in his life, In contrast to everyone inside, I "knew" him only as he existed now-- as some kind of person outside the body.

  At first, I was half-listening to the conversation of the two other maintenance people. Then I gradually became stunned by a very strong awareness that seemed to hover outside of me over my head, and I somehow sensed the restaurant owner. It was nothing haunting, but rather more like something benevolent seeking me out. I was relating to him as he was now, without any past memories, more strongly than anyone else there, and I felt sought out because of that.

  All the conversation of the workers faded into the background as the awareness grew stronger. I felt my heart going out full-force towards the restaurant owner, and I was filled with more of a sense of being alive, and more understanding, than I could ever remember.

  I felt myself completely surrounded by his presence, and surprisingly comfortable with that. At that moment, I discovered the real meaning of prayer, and I was spontaneously drawn to pray to G-d with all my being for the sake of this man, as I wished him well on his journey.

  Some time later, I moved into the community on the westside of town. Among the many new things I was learning, I discovered a more meaningful approach to death and burial that validated my encounter with the restaurant owner.

  According to Jewish tradition, the body which has served one so faithfully-- or even at times, not completely faithfully-- should be given the honor of not being left alone even when it is no longer viable, in contrast to something that is simply discarded and pushed to the side.

  Until the time of burial, a "shomer," meaning "guard" or "watcher," is appointed to stay with the deceased all through the day and night. The shomer , or shomrim if shifts are needed, stays awake and says King David's Psalms, known as "Tehillim." Before the burial, members of the burial society come to perform the ritual bath, the "tahara," and clothe the body in the shrouds.

  I was asked to work as a shomer a number of times, and I learned that if I would take my job seriously, it was indeed designed to be as meaningful as it had been for me at the funeral of the restaurant owner. Each time it happened in a different way, but each time it was memorable.

  I recall the first occasion that I sat as a shomer . It was for an old Jew whom I knew from the neighborhood. He had been a very friendly man, and I was sad at his passing. I accepted the job of sitting as a shomer for him until the burial the next morning, and I saw it as an opportunity to do him a good turn. But what I was doing, what I was watching, what I was guarding, I had no idea. I only knew I was to say Psalms all night and try not to fall asleep.

  At eleven o'clock that night, I went to the back door of an old mansion that now served as the city's one Jewish funeral home, and which had been adapted for use by the Orthodox, as well as the Reform and Conservative congregations.

  The door was opened by the night watchman, a tall man with broad shoulders and a lurch in his walk. He was obviously annoyed to be pulled out of his attic room at this time of night. He led me downstairs past various forms that were lying in the shadows. "This one's yours," he pointed out, and then he showed me into the nearby office room where I was to spend the night. The other shomer whose place I was taking got up and left as soon as he saw me arrive, the back door was securely locked by the watchman who ascended to the attic, and I was left alone.

  I remembered all the stereotypes I had of funeral homes when I was a child. I always pictured them populated by tall, lurching figures who lived in attics and delighted in leading strangers on one-way trips to dark basements full of shadowy shapes lying in corners. I would have felt better if all those things I had picked up about funeral homes had turned out to be Hollywood fabrications, and that, in reality, they were bright places full of daylight and potted plants. The funeral attendants could then reassure me "Don't worry, it's all a myth about death that we perpetrated in order to make money. It really doesn't happen, but that's a big secret, known only to those working here."

  Shortly, there was a knock on the outside door, and I hurried to open it. An old man was standing there. He mentioned the name of the deceased and moved inside firmly. He seemed to know his way to the basement, and he stood by the body which was lying covered by a sheet.

  After looking down for a short time, he began to speak out loud to the deceased, and he asked his forgiveness for any harm he might have knowingly or unknowingly caused him. Then, he turned my way, looking at me for the first time to determine if I was a friend or an anonymous stranger. When he saw that I understood, he expressed his gratefulness with a nod, and he was on his way out.

  I was also grateful for this bit of human company during his visit, and now I settled down to the long night's task of saying Psalms and fighting off sleep. That was the last real interruption that night except for the time when I heard a heavy thud in the next room.

  It took me a while before I could bring myself to venture out and see what had happened. I finally stuck out my head and discovered to my relief that some dry ice surrounding the body had evaporated just enough to cause a shift in the ice, and some had fallen to the floor.

  There were times when the night seemed endless, and I had to get up and walk around the room in order to keep my eyes open. At one point, I opened the desk drawer and found some magazines from the funeral home industry. The high-gloss advertisements were similar to those in other trade magazines, but here they were selling coffins and hearses.

  My thoughts traveled to the deceased. Where did he enter into the picture? He seemed to be a silent observer whose presence could be felt through everything. I focused my thoughts back to him as I closed the magazines and picked up my book of Psalms.

  It must have been the combination of being awake in the middle of the night and constantly saying Psalms. I began to let go of my own perceptions and observe things as they might have appeared to the deceased if he were actually present in the room at that moment.

  When I thought back to the old friend asking forgiveness, I was flooded by all the warmth of emotions that I imagined the deceased might be feeling for his friend.

  I remembered back to some of the things that were irritating to me during the course of the day, and I wondered how he would be looking now at the things that had irritated him in his daily life. It seemed clear to me that he would probably be too busy acclimating himself to his new surroundings to let things annoy him or be judging people.

  Many of those things which might have seemed very big to him before might, at that moment, have appeared in his eyes much smaller than the simple saying of Psalms. Then I, myself, began to see most of those things simply as distractions from my real task of saying Psalms, no more and no less than that.

  I was losing my own sense of things and replacing it with entirely new meanings and intimations. When I read the verse, "They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my garments they cast lots," the words jumped out at me. I wondered what his relatives were doing at that moment.

  I read the verse, "Wait for Hashem; be strong, and let your heart take courage; and only wait for Hashem." I heard the voice of someone who had lived his life, someone even older than "old," the voice of a soul that had survived the body and its lifetime.

  When I read, "Though my flesh and my heart should fail; yet the rock of my heart, and my portion will be G-d forever," I looked towards the deceased and felt him saying the words as only he could say them now.

  There were no windows in the basement of the funeral home, and so no indication that the night had passed. When the first attendant came down the stairs, he brought the news that the sun had risen. Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity as more attendants arrived and the coffee urn was turned on.

  They talked about the new arrivals, and I learned that the man I had been "shomer" on would be taken to his own house for the purification. The family had decided that they wanted the ritual washing to be done in the familiarity of their own home, as it was traditionally done before the advent of funeral homes.

  I did a double-take when I heard the word "tahara" (purification) rolling off the lips of the non-Jewish worker. It was one of those words that I never imagined that outsiders knew as part of their everyday vocabulary.

  The attendants arranged their schedules for the day, and the owner came downstairs to check up on the details. One more cup of coffee, and I climbed up the steps and emerged from that basement world. My job as shomer was not finished until the deceased was taken to the cemetery for burial. Now I accompanied him in the hearse to his home where the purification was being done.

  I rode up front with one of the funeral attendants. I only wanted to be silent and direct my thoughts toward the back of the hearse. I wanted to think of nothing but the deceased-- to say Psalms for him, to pray for him, to try to hold onto some of the experience from the middle of the night. But I fell into a conversation with the driver, though I was determined to let my thoughts go where they wanted to while we were talking.

  We talked about antiques, and I began to get a fuller picture about what kind of people work in the funeral industry. He and his wife owned an old house in a charming little town outside the city at the foot of the mountains. They spent almost all their spare time buying antiques, fixing them up, and filling their home with their findings. Their collection overflowed even into the kitchen and the bathrooms.

  I found myself becoming intrigued with the thoroughness of his preoccupation with preservation. Was his hobby a reaction to his career in the funeral industry where one faces constantly the reality of the passing of all things? It was as if he were grabbing hold of the furniture and varnishing it (like an embalming), and then telling us, "See! I can stop the process. I can varnish, and I can varnish some more, and here is something that will last forever!"

  Sitting up front in the hearse, I realized that we are not allowed to preserve in that way. I thought of the community swiftly performing all the tasks necessary for this man's burial. The shomer for the night was found, the plain wooden casket was ordered, the friends were waiting at this very moment to begin the tahara in his home. Other members of the community would take part in the burial, itself, with each one of them shoveling some dirt into the grave, rather than having strangers do it for them.

  The community had faced up to the loss of one of their members. There would be no preservation fluids pumped into him, no thickly padded casket to help us believe he is just "resting," and no strangers shielding us from performing vital tasks by ourselves.

  We cannot pretend he is alive a little longer, and this helps us to adjust to our grief and sense of loss in the most real way possible. Rather than beginning the mourning process under the guidance of a "director" of a funeral home, we will look to each other and to our tradition.

  I realized that I was probably talking to a perfect representative of the funeral business. He seemed to have chosen this field, not just as a way to make a living, but because his very essence had led him to it. I asked him to tell me how he had started in his career as an attendant to the dead.

  All his life, his father had wanted to be a mortician, but he had never made it. Instead, he had gone on to be a successful owner of a soda bottling plant. Had his father pushed him to become a mortician? He said no, but when he did decide on his own to become one and had gone to his father with the decision, his father had been very happy about it.

  He got his degree and landed his first job in a non-Jewish funeral home. He used to do all kinds of things for them, he told me-- a lot of embalming and preparation for cremation, for example-- that he didn't have to do too much now in the Jewish funeral home. Embalming and cremation have always been against Jewish law, and even non-observant Jews have not taken up these practices to a great extent, at least not yet.

  He then told me one thing, and after that, there was nothing I could say to him. He mentioned it in passing, but it didn't pass me by, and the images it evoked in my mind of a father and son working together on a project occupied me for the rest of our trip together.

  It was a simple statement. He told me that in the days when he worked that first job after college, his father would come to visit him. And then, as simply as one speaks of staining an old chair, he told me that the two of them would go downstairs to the basement mortuary, and he would embalm something for his father.

  We sat in the hearse and waited for them to finish the purifcation inside the deceased man's house. I began to think of my own father and our carpentry projects together. I remembered putting up the train set together, making snowmen together, and a myriad of such scenes. I was especially grateful for the times we sat together in synagogue, and my father would take the opportunity to talk to me about things I would need to know in my life.

  We sat in the hearse, and now very few words passed between us. We had nothing more to say to each other. One simple statement, said in passing, had exposed a gulf that had no bridge, leaving him on one side and myself on the other. I wanted to leave him alone with the things his father taught him, and I only wanted to know more of the things my father had taught me.

Copyright 1997 Yaakov Branfman




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