In the Jewish tradition, the body of the deceased is treated with care and respect, extending dignity to the earthly vessel that the human spirit has left behind. This task is often undertaken by the local Chevra Kadisha, a volunteer organization that cares for the bodies of the dead according to Jewish law and ancient custom. Funeral homes that conduct Jewish funerals can make arrangements for the services of the Chevra Kadisha or you can get information from your rabbi or local Jewish Federation.
Chevra Kadisha is a Hebrew phrase that means “sacred society” or “holy friends.” These anonymous volunteers are not paid for their services, for the act of caring for the dead is a mitzvah (a good deed and true act of loving kindness), because there can be no reciprocity from the deceased. They prepare the body for burial through a process called Tahara, which means “purification.” Some families will request a shomer, or “watcher,” a person who makes sure the body is never left alone until burial.
This purification ceremony is customarily done on the day of the funeral. It may be done in advance if a body is flown from one location for burial in another place. Usually a group of five or six people minister to the deceased, with one person reading prayers and psalms while the others tend to the body. In keeping with the spirit of modesty and respect for the dead, men perform the purification for men, women for women.
First, the body is carefully washed with warm water, and all clothing, bandages and foreign objects are removed. Any hair or blood removed during cleansing is put in a bag to be placed in the coffin, to keep as much of the body intact as possible. During this cleansing, the modesty of the dead is maintained by keeping parts of the body not being worked on covered by a sheet.
After the body is washed, it is purified through a mikvah, a ritual bath utilized to mark Jewish life cycle events. Here though, water is poured onto the body from pitchers that are passed continuously around until seven passes have been made. Two people pour, while others hold a clean sheet like a chuppah (wedding canopy) over the body and the heads of those pouring. The body is then dried carefully and gently dressed in burial garments.
Burial garments are pure cotton or linen, reflecting the clothing of the High Priest as described in Exodus and Leviticus. Usually, the garments include an under-tunic, an over-tunic, a head covering, and pants with no opening for the feet, indicating this person will not be walking anywhere. The garments are white, a symbol of purity, and have no pockets, symbolizing that no material possessions can be taken into the afterlife, reaffirming “you can’t take it with you.” As the deceased is buried only in these garments, there’s no need to worry about selecting clothing or shoes.
The practice of burying all Jews in the same type of simple garments was instituted eighteen hundred years ago when Rabbi Gamaliel instructed that rich and poor are equal before God. We all have the same parent; we all come to the same end – dust to dust.
Embalming is forbidden in Jewish law for several reasons. Blood is drained from the body and discarded in embalming, a problem since Jewish law considers blood a part of the body, and therefore not to be removed from the deceased. Embalming also retards swift decomposition of the body, delaying its return to the earth. It represents a denial of death through efforts to preserve the body. Even though the embalming of Jacob and Joseph was mentioned in the Bible, it was an Egyptian custom that predated the establishment of many Jewish laws that were given to the people by Moses.
The Chevra Kadisha volunteers then move the body and place it in a plain wooden coffin with no metal parts. The coffin can be of any kind of wood, but inexpensive soft woods such as pine are preferred over hardwoods such as oak, because they decompose more rapidly. The body, the linen garments, and the wood all deteriorate at about the same rate.
Finally, potsherds, fragments of pottery, are placed over the eyes and mouth, as a sign that these eyes no longer see and the mouth no longer speaks. Earth from Israel is sprinkled over the body. There is a belief held by Orthodox Jews that when the Messiah appears there will be a resurrection of the dead and those who lived a pious life will roll underground to the Holy Land to be resurrected. The earth from Israel placed in the coffin prepares them for the trip. This ritual is often done even if the deceased was not Orthodox (just in case – you can never be too sure).
The Jewish approach toward burial is a total opposite of the American funeral industry’s approach of “preservation” through embalming and hermetically sealed metal caskets. Here a simple wooden coffin, sometimes with holes drilled in the bottom, helps hasten the biblical commandment “Unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19).