Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Shomer Guf and the Funeral

Laura did call late last night to give us the details about the funeral home, Goldstein's. She spoke with Saul and he relayed to me that I would be there with Barbara Shatz, a friend of Faith Rubin and mother of Michael Shatz, who took over Jessica's job at Beth Hillel/Beth El. I had not seen Barbara in a few years. When she came in and went up to the coffin, I thought she seemed much taller and thinner than I remembered. We were relieving a cousin of Jay's, Bonnie, who had been there for the previous two hours. It turned out, when I asked Barbara about Michael, that she is actually Barbara Shotz, mother of Todd Shotz, who co-produced the television series, "Jericho" with Barbara Steinberg's son. Saul and Ari were especially big fans of the Jericho series. We began watching it because of our AJ connection and then became hooked.

My instructions were to be there at 8:30 a.m., to park on the upper side lot, and to knock on the double doors there and that the people who were there before me would open the doors. I decided to drop Saul at Chestnut Hill College for his 8:00 a.m. class and then return to pick him up so that we could go to the funeral together at AJ at 1:00 p.m. I did as I was instructed, arriving at 8:15 a.m., but it appeared dark inside and no one heard my knocking. After about five minutes of pounding on heavy glass doors, a car drove past me and into the lower lot. I followed it down on foot and explained to the emerging funeral home employee that I was there to watch a body and that no one had appeared to let me in. He invited me to enter with him through the garage doors underneath. He punched a number code into an inside door and we entered the building. I was on the lower level. We stood just outside a room where the bodies are kept and one of the funeral directors was there closing the doors on a refrigeration unit into which he had just placed a draped body. On tables around the room were several other draped bodies, probably three or four. My first impression was that the bodies that lay under the draping seemed very small when viewed that way. I wondered for a brief moment if one of them was Sandy, She was very tiny. When I explained my mission and told the funeral director for whom I was there, he introduced me to another man who was also a shomer who showed me the way upstairs to a regular reception room, in which I have been present too many times before, and in which the kosher coffin reposed at the front. It was a style of coffin that I am all too familiar with as it is the one all of us intend to use at some time, hopefully long into the distant future.

As I had said before, the custom of shomer guf is one I was honored to have been asked to participate in and that I think should be restored to more common practice. It takes a village to observe our rituals properly, and I think that is the point. These rituals have fallen out of use because a lot of our families have become so fragmented by busy lifestyles. Most people do not realize that they have a right and even an obligation to guard and protect the body of a loved one until it is properly buried. The obligation cannot be undertaken by the bereaved, but is the responsibility of the community that surrounds and supports the bereaved. Today's funeral proved that Jay and Sandy certainly do have that kind of loving community. Those that know about it usually hire a shomer when everyone else is too busy. In Judaism, all of these death rituals were designed to ensure modest and respectful treatment of the body. That is why we have closed coffins and simple shrouds. Often, horrible things are done to the body in order to make it look good in clothes in an open coffin.

The two hours I spent sitting with Barbara at Sandy's coffin were spent sharing our memories and stories about Sandy and Jay and discussing our families. Barbara had brought with her books by Anita Diamant and Rabbi Harold Kushner. Anita Diamant's book explained the significance of the rituals and Rabbi Kushner's explained the manifestations of the bereavement process. Yesterday, when we visited Jay, he was waiting for reporters from Channel 6 to interview him to air a segment on preventing DUI. Barbara asked me if I had seen him on Channel 6 on the 11 o'clock news. Of all times, last night we had a problem with Comcast and our televisions and phones were not working. We tried to reach Comcast this morning before leaving, but we were on hold with a recording for 20 minutes and finally, had to give up. They finally fixed the problem this afternoon, but in a call to Ari in our travels today, we were able to have him download the link so we could watch the broadcast. Seeing the smashed car in which she died was a far more chilling experience than sitting with Sandy's body for two hours this morning.

By 12:30 p.m., the parking lot at AJ was full and people began parking on the grass as they do during the High Holy Days. The sanctuary was so filled with people that many were standing for the service along the walls. Jay spoke eloquently with great humor and love about his marriage to Sandy and their life together. Both of their sons spoke beautifully as well and obviously have their parents ability to reach out to an audience. Rabbi Rosenbloom spoke of Sandy's many accomplishments and likened her life to a work of art that she had created all around herself. Of course, as expressive as they were, words can never quite capture the essence of a person. You had to have known her. I was very glad to have had the pleasure.


sabasenders said...

You are so good with describing the events. I feel Sandy would have been pleased.

I was very grogy when I answed the phone, Shatz, Shotz pretty close huh. Well you all know how I spell, spill, spool.

Anonymous said...

I too got the chills when I saw the smashed up car on the news. It is a wonder that anyone drives drunk anymore, and that there are not more failsafes.