Tuesday, December 6, 2016
What the dead think of us
A chevra kadisha (Hevra kadishah) (Aramaic: חֶבְרָה קַדִישָא, Ḥebh'ra Qaddisha "holy society") is an organization of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition and are protected from desecration, willful or not, until burial. Two of the main requirements are the showing of proper respect for a corpse, and the ritual cleansing of the body and subsequent dressing for burial. It is usually referred to as a burial society in English.
The task of the chevra kadisha is considered a laudable one, as tending to the dead is a favour that the recipient cannot return, making it devoid of ulterior motives. Its work is therefore referred to as a chesed shel emet (Hebrew: חסד של אמת, "a good deed of truth"), paraphrased from Genesis 47:30 (where Jacob asks his son Joseph, "do me a 'true' favor" and Joseph promises his father to bury him in the burial place of his ancestors).
At the heart of the society's function is the ritual of tahara, or purification. The body is first thoroughly cleansed of dirt, body fluids and solids, and anything else that may be on the skin, and then it is ritually purified by immersion in, or a continuous flow of, water from the head over the entire body. Tahara may refer to either the entire process, or to the ritual purification. Once the body is purified, the body is dressed in tachrichim, or shrouds, of white pure muslin or linen garments made up of ten pieces for a male and twelve for a female, which are identical for each Jew and which symbolically recalls the garments worn by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Once the body is dressed, the casket is closed. When being buried in Israel, however, a casket is not used.
The society may also provide shomrim, or watchers, to guard the body from theft, rodents, or desecration until burial. In some communities this is done by people close to the departed or by paid shomrim hired by the funeral home. At one time, the danger of theft of the body was very real; in modern times it has become a way of honoring the deceased.
Over the years, I've served on a number of Chevra Kadishas: in Atlantic County, NJ, in Miami Beach, Florida, in Efrat, Israel, and in Stamford, CT.
Each Chevra had its own character, ranging from Atlantic County, where there was a large elderly population and hence frequent deaths and only 4 of us on the Chevra (resulting in what I have come to think as my trial by fire - having to do 9 Taharot in the first week of my volunteering), to Miami Beach, where there was also a large elderly population but about 40 volunteers, so that you were able to choose between serving weekly, twice a month or monthly.
In all cases, everything was done with utmost respect for the dead, but I had one experience that completely changed my approach to doing Taharot.
There was a rebbetzin who served on the Miami Chevra who seemed to go beyond the usual respectful stance. When you watched her handling the dead, it seemed as if she were cradling her beloved newborn in her arms.
I told her how impressed I was with her manner of carrying out her Chevra duties, and she suggested I read the article, "What the dead think of us," by Aryeh Kaplan.
In the article, R Kaplan says that in the days immediately following death, the soul is still emotionally attached to the body, hovering close by and experiencing everything the body experiences. Only later is the soul able to completely let go of its corporeal existence.
It was so different to do a Taharah with that idea in mind, rather than just dealing with a body on its physical level. From then on, I carried out my Chevra Kadisha duties on a totally different plane.