I looked again at the casket. I thought it would be bigger, somehow.
My only comparison was my father (of blessed memory), who had stood six-foot-four and weighed -- well, a lot. I suppose that having a really big father has skewed my perception of weight and volume.
I took a volume of Psalms from the Chevra Kadisha resource box, pulled my little siddur (prayerbook) from my messenger bag, and sat down in the chair the previous Shomer (guardian) had just vacated. The chair was placed very close to one end of the casket, less than a foot away. It seemed inappropriate to move it, so I sat in it where it was. From time to time, I felt aware of shifting myself into the corner of the chair farthest away from the casket -- was that instinctive, or learned? -- as I flipped through the instructions and found the appropriate Psalms. (There is a set list that you're supposed to read in order.)
I read the first couple of them aloud, softly. I wasn't freaked out or anything, but I felt stilted, and sort of stuck. I felt like I wasn't feeling anything. It was weird. I stopped, and looked around wondering what to do. Then it came to me:
You sing, remember? So just sing something. Anything.
I looked down at the Psalm I was about to finish reading, and came upon the last line: "Yih' yu l'ratzon..."
(May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before Thee, O God, my Rock and my Redeemer.)
I began to hum, very softly, the melody I had composed for this text so long ago. I sang it as a niggun, a little startled at how, though I was humming very softly, the sound seemed to positively fill the room. As I did, the thought came to me that perhaps, though I had written the music years ago, the song itself, like its own entity, was waiting for this moment all along, waiting to be sung here in this time and place, for just this purpose. And in that moment the song no longer belonged to me. I had written it -- or maybe I was just a passageway for it to come through -- but in any case it didn't belong to me anymore. It belonged to the world, the universe, to God. And maybe, for a little while, it belonged to this fellow whose body I was guarding for a quiet hour in an upstairs room at a funeral home. Maybe it was his for a little while. Not to discount all the hundreds of times I or a community had ever sung this tune before, but in that moment -- a moment I hadn't gone looking for, mind you -- it felt the deepest, most real and most open sort of openness ever. And for a very tiny, imperceptible moment, I couldn't really tell how much of me was in my body and how much of me was in the song. I finished the wordless melody, went back and sang it through again with the Hebrew words, still surprised at how loud a very soft voice could feel.
The moment was gone as quickly as it had come.
I wasn't sorry it had left. Sustaining that sort of -- well, what DO you call it? I don't know -- for more than a moment or two is hard, maybe impossible, maybe even inappropriate. These moments come and go and maybe that's just part of the deal. So the moment went, and since this whole thing wasn't about me I didn't pull a Faust and ask the moment to stay longer. I let it go, and turned my attention back to the casket. I looked at its simple lines, the plain, unvarnished pine boards, the lid with only a small wooden Star of David glued on top and tiny, acorn-shaped knobs hiding the ends of the dowels that sealed the lid. (in order to be ritually acceptable, the casket cannot be assembled with metal nails, but must be built and sealed with all-wood joinery.) I found myself admiring the simplicity of the box, how right it felt for a person to go out this way. We begin simply, we end simply. In between, like the Psalm says, it's all just stuff, temporary, meant to pass away just as we all do. As we all will, one of these days.
I came to a line from a Psalm -- I can't remember which one now -- and made up a tune for it, singing it over and over until it felt right to resume reading the rest of that Psalm. I didn't write it down and I can't remember now what I made up and that seems perfectly okay.
I wasn't there to create anything.
I just there to sit with someone who was no longer someone, guarding the vessel that had once housed a soul.
I read a few more Psalms out loud softly, sang "Gam Ki Eilech..."
(Though I walk through the valley of utmost darkness I will fear no evil)
And followed it up with "Limnot yameinu..."
(Teach us to treasure our days, that we may open our hearts to Your wisdom)
And time passed. I read the rest of the Psalms silently, slowly. I realized that had stopped squirming in the chair.
My shift ended with a soft knock on the door. The funeral home staff had come to take the casket out, to move the body to the cemetery for burial. I waited until they had wheeled out the casket, then turned off the light, put on my jacket and left as well.
Walking to where my bicycle was locked up, I suddenly thought it might have been a good idea to wash my hands after having been in the presence of a body. But I didn't want to go back inside, so I took my water bottle and poured a little water over each hand in succession, letting the droplets of water fall into the soil beneath the Rhody bush. I shook them off, unlocked my bike and followed the hearse out of the parking lot.
It turned one way, and I turned the other, and went home.
Maybe there's more that will occur to me later. Maybe not. In any case, I'm glad I did it, and will be glad to be of help when I'm asked again.