Jewish Journal

Guarding the Body of a Friend

Kohenet Ellie Barbarash

June 13, 2014 | 11:32 am

Photo credit: Kerry Swartz 2014

I left for the airport as soon as I got the call. My friend Yosefa, a brilliant tattoo artist, educator, and fellow Kohenet, was on her deathbed, dying of a brain tumor. I booked the next flight from Philadelphia to Seattle in time to do shemirah, to guard her body and soul after her death.

Hours later, after a long plane ride and a taxi ride that felt even longer, I came to a suburban house with candles softly glowing on the porch, and a mezuzah on the door. It was past four in the morning.

I removed my shoes and went upstairs to Yosefa’s bedroom, where two other women we knew through the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute were reading psalms aloud, wrapped head to toe in blankets to warm themselves against the cold air flowing in to keep Yosefa’s body cold. The two had been waiting all night, and had given up hope of my coming. We shared joyful whispered hellos, and then they left to take a break before the ritual purification, or taharah, and the funeral. They instructed me to wake Yosefa’s husband around 6 a.m., then I heard the door close and was alone with Yosefa.

A small bedside lamp lit her face. Yosefa lay covered by a light blanket, peaceful, one leg bent, with an enigmatic smile, and her scalp bare from chemo. Her arms were still warm. I wrapped myself in quilts, and read psalms aloud. The psalms were too somber, so I switched to songs and prayers from Jewish Renewal and the Kohenet siddur, quietly singing my favorite songs and prayers, walking around the room as the curtains billowed in the brisk November breeze.

I felt Yosefa’s spirit in that dark room, a sense of her energy and sweetness. She looked greatly at ease. My friends had been praying, and I felt their energy, and that of peaceful prayers and psalms. All I witnessed before me was peace, and release, and a sense of flying joy that was not my own. I stood, and prayed, and sang.

Soon after 6 I woke her husband, and I left as he went to her side. It was so hard to leave Yosefa’s side. Hard to leave that palpable energy, the growing light, the flowing curtains, my soft sung psalms and prayers. But if anyone deserved to be bathed in Yosefa's love it was her husband, and so I woke him, and left as he entered their bedroom one last time, and shut the door quietly behind me.

I went downstairs and lay on their living room couch, warming up, waiting for a ride back to the hotel. I had worked all day and been up all night, and it was well past dawn. I floated, tired, feeling hollow and surprised and connected, held in love and mystery and gratefulness.

Kohenet Ellie Barbarash, MS, CPEA, lives and works in Philadelphia as an occupational safety specialist and educator. She is a member of the Philadelphia Jewish Reconstructionist Chevrah Kaddisha, and a Gamliel Institute student.

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Death and funerals have long been taboo subjects. From preparing the deceased for burial to choosing a cemetery, many Jewish end-of-life rituals are unknown until experienced...

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