I Tried the Jewish Tradition of Watching Over the Dead
I learned what it takes to be a shomrim—someone who keeps dead people company in the days before their funeral.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sweden
Shemira—meaning "guarding" or "watching" in Hebrew—is the Jewish tradition of keeping vigil over a dead person, from the moment they've died until the burial. In the past, the ritual was partly practical—it was a way to protect the deceased from rats, thieves, and anyone else who could desecrate the body. But today, it's a mark of respect and kindness. It's seen as a way to comfort a dead person's soul—which, according to Jewish tradition, is restless and confused shortly after death, and hovers around the body for a few days. The practical side of shemira might have gotten lost with the invention of mortuaries, but what's stayed the same over the centuries, is that the vigil is carried out by people called "shomrim."
"Working as a shomrim isn't for everyone," says Anna Nachman, head of the Swedish Jewish Funeral Society, as we talk on the phone. "You can't scare easily. Also, nobody is going to thank you for the job you're doing, so being liked and appreciated by the people you work for shouldn't be a priority for you."
To learn more, I accompanied 20-year-old Elias, a part-time shomer (the term for a male shomrim,) to a synagogue in the south of Stockholm. It's safe to say I had no idea what to expect—this was my first time in a synagogue and near a dead body.
We arrived in the evening, and Elias first gave me a tour around the synagogue. He showed me the three rooms, where deceased members of the community are kept until burial—the Tahara Room—where the body is cleansed and dressed in plain, white linen, the room where the shemira is held, and the Chapel, where the funeral service eventually takes place.
The man we were supposed to watch over had been born in Poland in 1935. Together with his parents, he had been deported to Siberia, had gone to Palestine from there, and eventually moved to Sweden in 1947. His life hadn't been easy—according to Elias, he had faced a range of physical and mental health issues from a young age, which left him fairly isolated. He died at age 82 in a nursing home, and, with no relatives, it was up to shomrim like Elias to guard his body until the funeral.
The room for the shemira was simple, with two chairs, a lamp, and a few books. Elias asked me if I wanted to see the actual corpse, which I politely declined. And luckily for me, we weren't too close to the body during the ritual—it remained in the casket in the chapel, while we kept watch through a window in the shemira room, adjacent to the chapel.
Shomrim aren't allowed to eat, drink, sleep, or use electronic devices while carrying out the ritual. They can't enjoy what the dead can no longer enjoy. Instead, they sit, think, and read from the Torah every now and then.
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Sitting there with Elias for hours gave me the opportunity to learn more about him and the way he practices his faith. At 17, like many of his friends, he decided to stop actively practicing Judaism. He felt there were just too many rules he was asked to live by, and according to him, a lot of Jewish teenagers in Sweden, who were brought up religiously, abandon their faith for the same reason.
"My dad is the former rabbi of Stockholm, and he obviously wasn't happy with my decision at first," Elias told me. "But he's accepted it now. Before, I used to pray three times a day, but now I only go to the synagogue once a month."
I asked Elias why he still wanted to take part in a deeply religious event like shemira if he didn't practice his religion as much anymore. He told me that he still has a lot of respect for the values that come with the Jewish faith, and feels at home in the community. "80 percent of my friends are Jewish. You just have more in common, considering your shared background and shared ways of living," he said. "I also want to teach my children about the Jewish faith and tradition, but they will decide for themselves whether they want to become religious or not."
After a few hours of sitting in that dark room, so close to someone who had died only hours earlier, I started to feel calm. Instead of desperately wanting to use my phone or getting creeped out by the idea of having a dead person near me, I began to appreciate the silence. The longer we sat in the room, the more peaceful I felt. I'm not a religious person, but there's beauty in keeping vigil over someone who has had a hard and lonely life, and in making sure that he wasn't alone.
After about seven hours of sitting there, we called it a night. Against tradition, Elias had fallen asleep next to me—and I was struggling to stay awake too. He assured me it was fine to leave, which, to me, seemed to fit well in the way Elias practices Judaism these days—honoring the values and sense of community of the Jewish faith, but not taking the specific rules all too seriously.
So at 3 AM, Elias and I left the synagogue behind. If everything went according to plan, we helped a soul find peace.