Thursday, December 29, 2005

Shemirah - Guarding The Dead

Shemirah or ‘vaching’ refers to ‘guarding’ the remains of the deceased from the moment of death until burial. It is usually performed by close relatives of the deceased, sometimes with assistance from friends or, who sit with the body in shifts, not allowing it to be left unattended even for a moment. Some communities organise a rota of volunteers to help with this practice; in the past, there were even paid ‘vachers’ to call upon.

This practice is well-ingrained into the Jewish psyche and is observed in every segment of traditional society. While the imperative to ‘guard’ the deceased is not mentioned explicitly in the Talmud, we learn in Mishnah Berachot that those who are engaged in the shemirah are exempt from other Mitzvah observances during their shift of duty. It is evident from this that shemirah has been a widely observed practice since ancient times.

One practical reason for shemirah is clear from the word itself – to guard the deceased from any physical harm. Left unattended, there is a concern that the body may be stolen, interfered with in some way, burned in a fire or attacked by rodents. In hot or insecure environments, these are reasonable concerns. It is also understandable why some would suggest that in modern mortuaries, where the area is usually secure and the temperature carefully regulated, that shemirah is no longer necessary.

There are, however, other reasons for the practice. The corpse, until recently a living human being, must be treated with the utmost respect. Leaving it unattended would imply that one now regards it as useless. The esoteric thinkers explain that the body, once the receptacle for the holy soul, is susceptible to negative spiritual forces until burial. We are assured that attending it prevents this from happening. Another view understands that the soul is in a state of flux soon after leaving the body – it is starting the long journey into the afterlife, yet remains attached to the body, its only anchor in the physical world, which has been its ‘partner’ for so many years. It causes the soul great distress to see the slightest ill treatment or neglect of the body; this may impede the soul’s progress. However, assured that the earthly remains are accorded every possible dignity, the soul can proceed on its journey, without, as it were, looking back. Of course, these reasons mitigate in favour of shemirah, no matter the circumstances.

It follows that since shemirah is a sacred duty, there are strict rules governing the conduct of those performing it. One may not engage in idle chat, eat, drink, smoke, greet others or even pray, learn Torah or perform Mitzvot when in a room with the deceased. Anything that distracts one from the task at hand is forbidden. However, it is appropriate to read psalms or learn Mishnah in memory of the deceased. Ideally, even these should not be read right next to the body; we are required to remain sensitive to the fact that while we can learn and pray, the deceased cannot.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

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