When I spent the night with Ruth, I didn’t even know what her last name was. I didn’t know how old she was, or whether she’d had children, or what her line of work had been.
I met Ruth at a funeral home in Metairie. It was raining and cold when I slid out of the cab, slammed the door shut behind me, and ran with bent head toward the back entrance of the funeral home. I punched in the code and pushed my way in through the unassuming white door. A woman named Sandy from the local Conservative synagogue was there to greet me and show me the way to Ruth, the deceased woman with whom I would be spending the night–I on the couch, she in a plain wooden coffin.
I’d responded to the email I’d received about a request from “the local Chevra Kadisha–or burial society…for people to sit with the body of a recently deceased community member.” The Chevra Kadisha is a group of Jews who see to it that the deceased in their community are properly attended to between death and burial. They are responsible for the ritual cleansing and dressing of the body before burial, and also for providing “shomrim” to watch over the body. The work of the Chevra Kadisha is considered a “chesed shel emet,” or a “good deed of truth.” It is a unique good deed because the deceased has no way of returning the favor. Somebody who takes part in a Chevra Kadisha cannot have ulterior motives to the work that she or he does, because there is no possible way of getting anything in return. I was looking forward to having some part in all of this, and also for experiencing what it would be like to spend the night alone in a room with a deceased woman. I called Sandy to let her know that I would be willing to be a “shomer” (literally “guard,” but in this case, somebody who sits with the body–or, as one of my housemates put it, “bodysitter”).
When I arrived, Sandy showed me around, pointing out the telephones, the coffee pot, the couch where I would be spending the night. There was a book of psalms on the table (it’s customary to read to the body from the Book of Psalms), a coffin in the middle of the room. “Call me if you need anything,” said Sandy. “Call if you get scared.” And she was gone.
I sat down on the couch. I picked up the Book of Psalms. I looked at Ruth, lying–laying?–in her coffin, covered by a blue cloth velvety-looking blanket with a Hebrew phrase on it, the meaning of which I failed to make out.
After a few moments, it occurs to me that I’m not scared, and I am slightly surprised by this realization. I like Ruth. I don’t know anything about her, other than that her name is Ruth and she’s dead and she’s in a coffin under this blue blanket. Sandy told me that she would send me Ruth’s obituary in the mail, so that I’ll know who I sat with, but for the time being, she could be anybody.
With. Sat with, and not for. That’s how I’m feeling about all this. It feels like the two of us are keeping each other company–it feels mutual. I don’t feel like I’m doing anybody a favor, or watching over anybody. I feel like I’m hanging out with an old friend.
This place is so big and empty, I’m glad I’m sitting with Ruth. When I left the room that Ruth and I are sharing (it’s almost like we’re roommates), I felt lonely, the tiniest bit frightened. I missed her presence, I guess. Her presence is still and calming. I wonder what her life was like, how she was in life. It hardly matters now, and somehow, that’s soothing. It’s soothing to think that no matter what happens in my life, no matter what I do or whether I fail or succeed or how tired I make myself, in the end up I will end up like Ruth, beneath a blue blanket, in the presence of a girl and a book of psalms.
I’m grateful that Ruth is here with me.
I open the Book of Psalms. On the inside of it is a label that reads, “This books is made available by Shir Chadash Synagogue for those who serve as Shomrim (sitters) for the deceased prior to burial.” I think this is interesting. The book is for me. Not Ruth. If I read from this book, as is customary, am I doing it for me? Or for Ruth? It doesn’t say that the book is here for me to read to Ruth. It only says that it is here for me.
Indeed, I think it’s striking how much Jewish rituals around death and dying are put in place for the mourners and those of us who remain here on earth, rather than for the deceased. Sitting shiva, saying kadish, and even being a shomer–all of these rituals are, in one way or another, a way for the living to cope with and reflect upon death and dying.
A few days after my “bodysitting” experience, I received Ruth’s obituary in the mail. I found out that she was the mother of four, the grandmother of twelve, and even the great-grandmother of nine! She was influential in shaping early childhood education in New Orleans. She was a dancer, a successful spelling bee participant, and an art docent. She was a social worker, a sculptor, a teacher, a friend.
And we kept each other company through one rainy night in December.