Dignity for the Body Peace for the Soul
The Role of the Chevra Kadisha/Burial Society
Preparing a fellow Jew for burial is an especially great mitzvah
Throughout Jewish history, being a member of the Chevra Kadisha has been a great honor. Members of the Burial Society are selected for their character, integrity and personal devotion to Jewish tradition. These men and women are on call 24 hours a day to perform a Tahara, and to ensure that the laws and traditions of Jewish burial are executed properly. Their greatest concern is the sensitive care, modesty and dignity of the deceased. Men care for men, women care for women, Jew cares for fellow Jew. There is no better way to ensure the dignity of the body than to entrust its preparation to the Chevra Kadisha.
What happens to the soul after death should make all the difference in your burial decisions
When a person dies, the soul, or Neshama, continues to exist. The Neshama is the essence of a person: the consciousness and totality, the thoughts, deeds, experiences and relationships. It stays with the body which was its container, and now, on its way to the Eternal World, refuses to leave until the body is buried. A Jewish funeral is therefore most concerned with the feelings and the needs of the deceased, not only those of the mourners. The respect in treating the body and the behavior around the body must reflect how we would act around the person at this crucial moment.
From the moment of death to the moment of burial, the body is never left alone
Now more than ever, the body deserves respect. After all, there is a real awareness around the body that knows exactly what is going on. It would be insensitive to leave the body alone, without any attention, as if it were being discarded because it is no longer useful. Arrangements for a shomer, or guard, should therefore be made.
The watchmen stay with the body day and night reciting passages from the Book of Psalms. This lends great comfort to the Neshama while it waits for the body’s burial and its own ascent to the Eternal World.
The body leaves the world the way it entered.
A newborn is immediately cleaned and washed when it enters the world. So it is when a person leaves the world. After all, the soul is about to be reborn in a new spiritual world. We also believe that the body will be resurrected in this world.
A Tahara is performed by members of the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society). This is a complete cleansing and dressing of the body, performed according to Jewish law and custom. Prayers are offered asking for the forgiveness of the deceased and the soul’s eternal peace. While Tahara requires that the body be made as presentable as possible, embalming, cosmetizing, or any other attempts to create a life-like appearance through artificial means are contrary to Jewish law.
Dressing for the final Yom Kippur
The Neshama is about to face its final Judgment Day, and clothes don’t matter — good deeds do. That is why every Jew is buried exactly alike, in a hand-made, simple, perfectly clean, white linen shroud which includes a white hat, shirt, pants, shoes, coat and belt. Men are dressed in a Tallis (prayer shawl).
The shrouds have no pockets to accentuate the fact that no worldly belongings accompany a person. The shrouds are modeled after the white uniform worn by the High Priest in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur when he stood before God asking for the needs of his family and the entire Jewish people. These shrouds are therefore especially appropriate because each and every Neshama asks for the needs of his or her family on the final Judgment Day.
Allowing the body’s natural return to the earth to be as swift as possible
“From the dust you are, and to the dust you shall return.” This biblical teaching is what guides us in selecting a casket. The casket must not be made of a material that slows down the body’s natural return to the elements.
Metal caskets are therefore not permitted. Wood is the only material allowed, and several holes are opened at the bottom to hasten the body’s return to the earth. When vaults are required, they too should be open at the bottom.
Caskets remain closed because viewing the body is seen as disrespectful and undignified, and is therefore forbidden according to Jewish Law.
Kvura BiKarka/ In-Ground Burial
The natural decomposition of the body is of utmost importance in Jewish Law
The Neshama’s return to Heaven is dependent upon the body’s return to the ground. That’s what the Prophet means when he says, “The dust returns to the earth… and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Jewish Law is therefore concerned with the immediacy of burial and the natural decomposition of the body.
Mausoleums are therefore forbidden since they do not return the body to the earth. Cremation is most certainly forbidden. It is the harshest form of indignity to the body.
The only acceptable burial is directly in the ground, with family members and friends helping to fill the grave completely until a mound is formed. No attempt to interfere with the body’s natural process is permitted.