Religion & Beliefs

Become A Member of High Society—Join A Chevra Kadisha

We’ve talked a lot about death recently. Laurel told us about egalitarian eulogizing. We learned about kosher organ donation, inheritance and ethical wills. I told you how to act at a Shiva call. But before the eulogy and the reading … Read More

By / May 11, 2007

We’ve talked a lot about death recently. Laurel told us about egalitarian eulogizing. We learned about kosher organ donation, inheritance and ethical wills. I told you how to act at a Shiva call. But before the eulogy and the reading of the will and the ethical will, and the Shiva, comes the preparation of the body for burial. The group who wash and prepare bodies for Jewish burials is called the Chevra Kadisha, the Holy Group. They get this auspicious title because performing a favor for someone who is dead is considered the ultimate act of kindness since a dead person can never repay you. For many years, being a part of the Chevra Kadisha was a honor for which you had to be selected. It was a real mark of privilege. These days, though, anyone can volunteer. In general, when a Jewish person dies in a city with a substantial Jewish population, the hospital or funeral home will know to call someone from the Chevra Kadisha, and immediately someone will come to sit with the body, because Jewish bodies are never to be left alone. This is called shmira, guarding. When the body is ready to be prepared for burial, a team of others are assembled. All are the same sex as the deceased, and they follow strict rules having to do with the washing and preparing of the body. Everything is done with an intention of utmost respect for the dead person. The process is bookended by prayers that beseech God and the deceased to forgive any errors that may be committed in the preparation, and a solemn statement of respect and honor. There are a bunch of wonderful resources online for people interested in the process of tahara, purification of the dead. My favorites are the Velveteen Rabbi’s post Facing Impermanence, Ruchama King Feuerman’s The Last Kindness, and Final Touches by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell. There also a great audio piece by Rebecca Sheir here, and if you’re really interested in starting a Chevra Kaddisha in your own community, you can buy a training DVD. Here’s why I think Jewcers should form their own chevrai kaddisha: The main component of the purification (tahara in Hebrew) is respect for the person who has died. Sadly, there is a distinct lack of respect in a lot of the relations between various sects and subcultures of Jewish observancy. And while I’m sure that a Haredi woman doing tahara on a girl like me–a girl who lays tefillin, and reads Torah and kisses boys and swears too much—would have a pure and respectful intention, it’s hard to ignore that in life, there would likely have been significant conflict between the two. And so it seems that Haredi women might not be the best choice of chevra kaddisha for a progressive, liberally minded Jewess. And the same problem, of course, applies to men. Ultimately, performing tahara on a person from your community, a person whose ideology you shared, and whose life you valued, is an incredible way to express your love and respect for that person. So even if the tahara would happen without us in particular, I think it’s important to make sure that our progressive communities, our awesome minyanim, and cool strong synagogues put together our own chevrai kaddisha, so that when our friends and relatives die, we’re not depending on other groups to carry out the wishes of the dead. Just as we gather at the shiva house to express our support to the family, let’s gather at the funeral parlor, and show our respect to the deceased. For information on how to start a CK, click here.