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Making a Personal Commitment to Care for the Dead—by Singing to Them

Just as we sing lullabies to newborns, I now offer the same loving care as part of my work with a burial fellowship

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I serve many roles in my community’s chevra kadisha, or sacred burial fellowship—from community organizer to silent witness. There are set tasks of washing, purification, dressing, and laying out the dead. Protection of the body against dishonor is the primary Jewish imperative, which is why sh’mirah (vigil-keeping around the clock) remains so vital to the process.

I am a rabbi, but my commitment to the burial fellowship is part of an ancient lay commitment that predates rabbinic leadership. And for me, the unique heart of this sacred undertaking is singing to those who have died.

The use of songs and chants during sh’mirah and taharah (ritual preparation of the dead) draws upon a little-known but established tradition, particularly among Sephardim. Ma’avar Yabbok, a 17th-century mystical text on death and burial, states that “the soul benefits from melody,” although it doesn’t specify which melody. Reflecting on the chevra kadisha decades before her own death, singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman observed: “The fear of death and the fear of life may be one and the same.” For many of us, the fear of singing is a potent but often unmentioned part of our “fear of life.”

Overcoming my own fear of singing has been bound up with my quest to reclaim sacred fellowship. I discovered that just as we sing lullabies to newborns who are washed, swaddled, and watched-over around the clock, I could offer the same loving care to those who have died—and thereby tame my fears of both life and death.

***

I was afraid to sing in public when I was young. I was trained as a pianist and longed to be a singer, but my fear was stronger than my desire, and my voice would get caught in my throat during vocal auditions. I was turned down for fifth-grade chorus and for coveted singing roles in musicals. “You can play the piano,” I was kindly told.

As my confidence waxed and waned, my singing voice came and went. My bat mitzvah chanting in 1972 prompted my childhood rabbi to joke about me becoming “the first female cantor.” In our high-school production of Fiddler on the Roof, I received an opening-night break as the understudy for Fruma-Sarah and sang vengefully to reasonable acclaim as the butcher’s ghostly first wife. But I always lapsed back into fear and shame, convinced that I wasn’t good enough—a belief periodically reinforced by others.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties and living in Israel that I lost my fear of singing. About a year after the first Gulf War, something nameless but vaguely defiant shifted inside me. Emerging from the life-and-death vulnerability of sirens and missile attacks, perhaps I realized that I could afford to risk the vulnerability of breathing more fully into song.

The American folk hymn “How Can I Keep From Singing?” became my theme song. In Anglo-Israeli folk-singing circles, I encouraged my listeners to join in and dedicate the chorus to all of the teachers, family members, and others who ever discouraged us from singing. People invariably approached me afterward and shared stories that revealed the intimate wounds left from this discouragement.

Ironically, my singing now seemed to be acceptable by external performance standards. Many of my listeners even assumed that I had been trained as a singer.

***

I had my first direct encounter with a dead human body years later, at a nursing home in New York City where I served as a rabbinic chaplain. While making my rounds of the dining halls with grape juice to offer kiddush one Friday evening, I was summoned to the room of one of the elderly residents who had just died, a woman I’ll call Laura.

Laura was an elegant, articulate, and cultured woman with a background in the performing arts. Her physical condition had been deteriorating steadily for weeks, and her powers of speech had given way to piteous, wordless outcries. I had found myself avoiding her room more and more during my visiting rounds (after all, there were so many other residents to see), out of what I later recognized as my own sense of helplessness.

And now here she was, dead: eyes closed, mouth open, face pale and stiffened. I do not recall feeling any conscious fear as I stood beside her bed, but in retrospect I was certainly at a loss. My professional training and knowledge of Jewish mourning rituals up to that point had not provided any specific guidance for handling this situation. It simply wasn’t part of the normative curriculum, which focused on the living. After several uncertain minutes at her bedside, I decided that I would continue to offer Friday night kiddush for the living residents and return to offer support to Laura’s bereaved relatives when they arrived. And so I left Laura alone.

When I returned, I found three of Laura’s surviving family members tearfully clustered around her bed. Her sister mentioned the wordless outcries of recent weeks and told me that she had asked Laura what they meant. Was she in physical pain? “No,” Laura had answered. “I cry out to let people know that I’m still here.”

Still weeping, her relatives began bustling around the room, packing up the few remaining personal artifacts of her life. One was a large black-and-white photograph of Laura in her younger years as a performer, which had provided a striking contrast to her appearance before she died. Then her family members left to begin making funeral arrangements and notifications.

This time, I stayed in the room. Before I began avoiding her, I had sung to Laura when she was alive, as I often did in my chaplaincy with residents. Now I chose a Yiddish lullaby for the end of life and began softly singing again:

The sun will set beneath the hill,
And Love will come silently
To Loneliness sitting upon a golden stone,
Weeping for itself alone …

The sun will set beneath the hill,
And the night will come and sing a lullaby
Over the eyes that already close
To sleep in eternal rest.

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Making a Personal Commitment to Care for the Dead—by Singing to Them

Just as we sing lullabies to newborns, I now offer the same loving care as part of my work with a burial fellowship