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Watching the Body after Death

The Care of the Deceased after Death

In the Jewish burial tradition, there is great reverence for both the body and the spirit of a person who has died. The initial care of the body after death reflects the basic belief in the sacredness of man. Jewish custom upholds the belief that man was created in God’s image, and that the physical body, when a person was alive, embodied the spirit of God. Jewish tradition also likens the physical body to a Torah scroll that has been damaged and can no longer be used at a service. It may no longer be functional, but it is viewed reverently because of the holy function it once served.

Because of that reverence for the physical body, it’s customary, after a Jewish person dies, for the family of the decedent to arrange for Shemira, or the “watching/guarding” of the body. Traditionally, the deceased is not to be left alone from the moment of death until burial is complete. The person doing the watching is referred to as a “shomer,” if male, and as a “shomeret,” if female. In many instances (and preferably), the watcher is a family member or a personal friend of the deceased. If this is not possible, the family may turn to the chevra kadisha, or to the local synagogue to find individuals who perform shemira. The shomer/shomeret must remain awake at all times, and should be reciting from the Book of Psalms.

The Tradition of Shemira

The word “shemira” comes from the Hebrew, and is used to describe a type of guard duty. Historically, the shomrim (plural for shomers and shomerets) were considered guardians of the dead, with the specific responsibility for guarding a body against rodents. According to scripture, rodents fear the living, but not the dead. Over the centuries, shemira has developed as a practice to pay respect to the dead, ensuring that they were not abandoned between their death and subsequent arrival at theirnew home in the ground. Leaving a body unattended is considered to be akin to saying that no one cares for the person.

In practice, though, shemira is less about watching the body and more about being physically present with the body, essentially keeping it company and providing comfort. In fact, it’s common for the body to be covered or in a closed casket, particularly after the body has been prepared by the Chevra Kadisha.

It is also believed, as set forth in midrashic tradition, that the human soul remains with, but unattached to, the body for a period of three to seven days after death. Part of the function of the shomrim is to provide comfort to the soul as it hovers near the body before burial. The reading of psalms by the shomrim also provides them with comfort.

The act of serving as a shomer or shomeret is deemed to be a mitzvah under Jewish law. Essentially, a mitzvah is a good deed done for religious purposes.

Come to Gutterman’s for Compassionate Service after the Death of a Loved One

At Gutterman’s, we have worked closely with individuals and families during the funeral and burial process for more than 125 years, helping people in New York and Florida. We understand that the grieving process can be doubly difficult with social distancing and shelter-in-place requirements preventing the gatherings that can be such an important part of healing. We are currently not conducting any services in our chapels or in synagogues, but are available by phone, text message or videoconference to help you during your time of loss. To learn how we can be of assistance, call us at one of the numbers below. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.