Thursday, October 29, 2015

Shmira - Sitting With Crysta

I got an email Tuesday afternoon that a good friend had died.  A good friend, to me, is someone you have an ongoing mutual affection for and with whom you can talk openly about things big or small.  When you see each other, no matter how much time has passed since you were last together, you pick up the conversation as though you'd just been away an hour or two.  Crysta was such a friend.

The email also asked if volunteers were available "to perform the mitzvah shmira."  I've been Jewish, more or less, all my life but I didn't know what shmira was, so I consulted Rabbi Google, who introduced me to Elizabeth Savage at Tablet who'd written about her shmira experience earlier this year:
"Shmira, which literally means guarding, is one of the prescribed Jewish rituals surrounding death. The group in charge of these customs is called the Chevra Kedisha (literally “holy group/community”), which attends to the preparation and protection of the body between death and burial—a time when it’s believed the soul hovers in a sort of liminal space. Someone must clean and dress the body, and someone must sit shmira at all times."
The Chevra Kedisha website offers a little more:  
The Concept of Shmira
Many of the traditions and laws that pertain to the care and preparation of the Jewish dead are founded on two basic principles:
1. The body as the container of the soul is to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.
2. Although at death the soul departs the body, it still remains present near the body and is fully aware of all that transpires in its vicinity.
Thus the Shmira serves two purposes:
1. To guard the body from becoming prey for rodents and insects.
2. To give respect to the remains and consolation to the soul by not leaving the body
unattended like something useless and no longer worthy.
As I said, Crysta was a good friend, and we still had some things to tell each other and this seemed like a good opportunity.  So I emailed back we were available except Wednesday evening.  I guess I hadn't thought it through completely.  The email with the Shmira schedule had us down for Wednesday morning from 4:30am to 6:30am.  It took a few minutes for me to realize it was already Tuesday night and that meant we were expected in less than 10 hours.  I told J she didn't really have to come with me at that hour, but she insisted. 

Actually, I do like it when I manage to get up and out really early in the morning when no one else is out and about.  We knocked on the back door at the funeral home and the people before us let us in and even offered to leave some chocolate for us.  I'd already learned that I wouldn't be literally sitting with the body, but rather in the same building.  But there was no one else there but us and whatever bodies were there with Crysta. 

I can't imagine Crysta not being around.  She can die, yes, hard as that might be on those of us left behind, but I know she'll always be around.  That strong English accent despite her 50 some years in the US, always gave her a veneer of class and authority that hid, until you got to know her better, the very warm and funny woman she was.  We chatted a bit and I read her from the The River of Smoke.  Everything now is taking place in Canton and the Pearl River down to Hong Kong and I knew that Crysta would enjoy it.  Crysta and Ray had asked, way back when I was going to teach a graduate class on Chinese Civil Service Reform that included a trip to Hong Kong and Beijing, if they could come along.  It would help with the cost of the travel for the students so no one had a problem.  And despite being 30 years older or more than all of the students, Crysta and Ray never wore out, so none of the students could complain that I was pushing them too hard.  And their calm demeanor and travel experience made them great chaperons for the students, most of whom had never been out of the US.  And it raised our friendship to a whole new level. 

So I read and I could hear Crysta asking questions or correcting me, always with an impish smile in her voice.  And as I thought about our special relationship, I was reminded of Lydia Selkregg's funeral when one person after another stood up and talked about their special relationship with Lydia.  What, I thought at the time, everyone had a special relationship!?  It took a while to realize that didn't diminish the relationship I had had with her.  I know that's also the case with Crysta.  It's good to know that you can love lots and lots of people without diminishing any of those relationships.  I remember wondering when J was pregnant with our second child:  I love my son so much; how can there be enough love for yet another child.  And after M was born, I learned that love is infinite. 

Thanks, Crysta for being in my life.  Your departure would be much more difficult if you hadn't lived life so well that seeds of your goodness are planted in so many people's hearts. 

"When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes."


  1. What a beautifully written tribute, Steve! Thank you.

  2. A very moving tribute to a beautiful soul. Your departed friend sounds like she lived a full, mindful life. Thank you for the words of remembrance.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.