Protecting the dead, both body and soul

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In the Jewish tradition of shemira, the deceased are comforted until burial.

This piece is part of our “Bodies” show. Take a look at the rest of our stories here.

Late at night, the only living thing inside Joseph Levine & Sons funeral home is Betzalel Katkovsky.

An orthodox rabbi born in Belarus, he’s busy keeping the dead company.

“You feel tired by spending [the] whole night, but of course there is a good feeling that the soul will be benefited from your services. And you feel certain relief,” says Katkovsky.

He is here until sunrise performing the Jewish tradition of shemira (or shmira), which involves guarding the body in the time between death and burial.

Before the advent of modern funeral homes and morgues, shemira served a very practical purpose: the ‘shomer,’ as the guardian or watcher is called, was there to shoo away any animals that may disrupt the corpse.

“Critters are something that was a problem,” says Adam Levine, who along with his two brothers, are the fifth generation to run this Philadelphia funeral home.

But while keeping away rodents may have been the genesis of shemira, the practice also took on a more transcendent tone.

Many Jews believe that after a person dies, his or her soul doesn’t simply vanish. A part of that soul remains with the body, stuck in a kind of limbo until burial. It’s the job of the shomer, or shomeret if it’s a woman, to comfort the deceased’s soul. And it isn’t a role only filled by the religiously ordained.

“As far as I understand, really the only requirements are that the person be Jewish,” says Levine, a big man with a yarmulke covering his head.

During the day, there are always staff members of the funeral home in the building, offering protection and support for the souls of the dead. But Joseph Levine & Sons calls upon Katkovsky to come after hours whenever a family requests the services of a shomer. (There is an additional charge, and Katkovsky is compensated for his time.)

“So I come in the evening,” explains Katkovsky, “and I start saying the Psalms.”

His long beard brushing the pages of his prayer book, he explains how the King David Psalms, 150 melodic poems, are recited in honor of the deceased. They aren’t necessarily read in order, or without pause, but Katkovsky does work his way through the text during the evening.

“You feel like you are reciting the Psalms and prayers that will benefit that person, so you feel a spiritual connection.”

At Joseph Levine & Sons, the shomer spends the overnight in a room adjacent to the morgue, sitting on the same deep purple couches where a family will gather to grieve before a funeral service. Katkovsky, however, rarely meets the family, and usually knows little more about the dead than their name.

But that doesn’t mean his services aren’t appreciated. Serving as a shomer is considered a mitzvah, a charitable act in the Jewish faith.

“Yes, it is a very respected activity, because not everyone is able to come to do it. Some people are scared to stay overnight with the body in a closed place, especially a funeral home,” he says with a smile. “So it is highly respected, this job.”

Though Katkovsky has become Joseph Levine & Sons’ go-to shomer, others will also perform shemira if he is unavailable. That includes Adam Levine.

“When it is a close friend, and I have a connection to the person, I do tend to still come and do it late at night and become a shomer at times,” he says.

“It’s intense. It’s intense.”

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