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
Soon afterward, two female nursing assistants entered the room in surgical gowns, pulling on rubber gloves. I watched silently as they moved through what was—of necessity for them—a routine process of wrapping and maneuvering Laura’s lifeless body into a zippered bag and onto a gurney. Then they called for a male colleague, who came and wheeled Laura’s body off to what I assumed was the morgue.
I followed the gurney out of the room and stood watching as Laura’s body was taken down the hallway and out of sight. I then returned slowly to my own routines, still wondering about the relationships between the living and the dead, the individual and the community.
I continued to turn to the synagogue of which I am a congregant and through which my own first experience of sh’mirah actually predated my encounter with Laura. Building on a few spontaneous vigil-keeping mobilizations there, I worked with our pulpit rabbi over nearly a decade to organize the only egalitarian volunteer chevra kadisha in Brooklyn—and one of only four in New York City.
During the 18 years since I first showed up for sh’mirah, I have kept the vigil over the dead in hospital rooms and morgues, funeral home parlors and basements, and private homes. I have accompanied the body of someone I knew in life down a freight elevator marked “TRASH,” and was grateful that my presence could mitigate the indignities of the moment. Each of these experiences has opened my eyes and brought me closer to understanding the essential imperative of sitting with someone who has died: to be as fully present as possible; to bear witness to the human being who is “gone” yet still here in the physical form that is to be honored for the soul it once bore.
I don’t always sing. I may sit silently for a while, in the front of the industrial refrigerator. There will be books of Psalms available, which I may pick up to recite my particular favorites. Or I may turn to my accumulated personal store of melodies, chants, and songs in various Jewish languages. It’s an intuitive process, depending on how I find myself connecting with the dead, what I know or don’t know about him or her, and how I am feeling at the time I am called to sit.
Singing also helps to center, calm, and reassure us as living volunteers. In our women’s taharah team, a designated team member who recites the liturgy during taharah also chooses the songs and chants. I’m usually designated, but I try to empower others to take on this role as well. Our men’s team has adopted the tradition of a designated team member reciting Psalms throughout the taharah process, just as many vigil-keepers do.
Especially when struggling to prepare a body in difficult physical condition after death, I turn to the Song of Songs—which praises the physical beauty of the beloved—to help shift the energy and refocus the intention. Other team members are encouraged to sing along, hum along, or simply listen to the various melodies, according to each member’s personal comfort level and what helps each one to perform the tasks at hand.
I believe that this kind of singing, like the singing of lullabies, is our human birthright—beyond the considerations of performance art or externally imposed aesthetic standards. Long before professional performances or recording technologies, people sang to and with each other in families and communities. I mourn the loss of this birthright, even as I seek to reclaim it.
The more I’ve accepted my own voice over the decades, the more consistent the quality of my singing has become. I’m periodically asked, “Are you a professional singer?” In a way, I am: I’ve served as a cantorial soloist for High Holy Day services, and from time to time others have paid me as well: to sing for a living, for the living. But my singing for the dead as a volunteer is priceless: hesed shel emet, ultimate kindness that cannot be repaid.
Old wounds linger from being silenced years ago. My “professional”-sounding voice remains a source of ambivalence for me, especially when I try to encourage others to sing and am told “I’d rather listen to you.” I continue to waver and grow in the call-and-response of my singing life.
I still carry inside me the young girl whose voice was judged not good enough for fifth grade chorus. But somehow I never feel judged by the dead.
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