Jewish funeral customs are some of the most unique and beautiful traditions in the burial industry. With a focus on a strong sense of community and mourning, these customs range from the strict preparation of the body to mourning habits like sitting shiva (a seven-day mourning period observed by the immediate family of the deceased).
In keeping with these religious rites is the chevra kadisha, a holy society (or organization) composed of individuals who oversee the process of preparing the body of the deceased for burial. Central to the concept of chevra kadisha are showing a proper level of respect for the body and ensuring that the ritual cleansing and dressing of the body is in keeping with Jewish standards.
Why Body Preparation is Important
In today’s funeral industry, body preparation tends to be a fairly invasive process. From autopsies and embalming to the thick layers of makeup put on to hold an open casket ceremony, there can be quite a bit of physical manipulation done to what remains of the person you loved.
In the Jewish tradition of chevra kadisha, this aggressive approach is set aside in favor of a more personalized purification rite. Those who are tasked with the body’s preparation are considered to be doing an incredibly good and selfless deed, as their task is one that is done for reasons of kindness.
The Chevra Kadisha Process
The ritual cleansing performed by the chevra kadisha is known as tahara (or purification). In this process, the body is physically cleansed and then purified by immersion in a continuous flow of water. After being purified, the body is then dressed in a special shroud for burial.
Depending on where the burial is taking place and the degree to which the family adheres to religious customs, additional services might include watching over the body in the days and nights preceding burial, fasting, and prayer services.
What Chevra Kadisha Means in Today’s Funeral Industry
Funeral homes that specialize in Jewish funerals either have the facilities for this ritual body preparation, or they are able to work with a local chevra kadisha society to arrange the entire process. In most cases, it can also be arranged by the individual’s synagogue.
One of the primary benefits of this type of service is that it exists regardless of income or family. Individuals who may not have any immediate family in the area or at all can still receive a respectable burial in keeping with their faith. So, too, can a chevra kadisha society help defray some of the costs of traditional burial, as much of the work is done on a strictly volunteer basis.
Whatever your personal religious beliefs, there is something to respect in groups like the chevra kadisha. With a focus on family, spirituality, and tradition, the Jewish burial customs skip much of the trappings of funeral planning to center on what really matters—saying goodbye with respect and love.