(JTA) — In Jewish communities around the world, there is a little known group of men and women dedicated to performing the mitzvah of preparing a body for burial, a ritual called tahara. The group is called the chevra kadisha, the holy society.
The chevra kadisha isn’t a secret group, but it operates quietly. Tahara is considered an especially holy mitzvah because it is performed without the possibility that the person you perform it for will return the favor. Because we perform tahara without expectation of reward, I’m also writing this article anonymously because I don’t want any “credit” to accrue to me.
As I became familiar with the practice during the course of my own religious explorations and aspirations, I discovered I have a calling for it. I don’t mind working with the dead and I love performing this mitzvah.
Tahara is a practice that has been passed down across the centuries and has many variations. The particular ritual I’ll describe is based on my own decade of experience and the “Tahara Manual of Practices” by Rabbi Mosha Epstein, one of the few extant documents on the ritual in English.
It all gets started with a telephone call. A rabbi, a funeral home or perhaps the family of the deceased calls the contact for the chevra kadisha and lets it know a tahara needs to be performed. As Jewish burials take place as quickly as possible, there’s a small window of opportunity. And tahara, just like a burial, is not performed on Shabbat. The timing is tight, so members of the chevra kadisha tend to be retired or have a flexible work schedule.
Each chevra has a separate group for women and men. A group of four or more is recruited by the contact.
Typically there is no interaction with the family of the deceased in keeping with the tradition that the mitzvah is performed with no expectation of credit accruing to those who perform it.
When I perform tahara, I carry into the experience two different feelings. First, I keep in mind that the deceased’s soul has already returned to Hashem’s care – what remains is what has been cast off.
Second, I feel that I need to take care of what remains with the utmost respect and even love. I will be tending to what remains after a life well lived. I will be helping the body return to its natural elements, and will do so to the best of my ability and according to the traditions handed down through the centuries. Sometimes it’s a difficult experience, but it is a holy one.
To begin the process, the chevra kadisha places the deceased on a table with the feet pointing to the door and straightens the body. Sometimes it’s a difficult process.
Many hospitals don’t remove all the tubes and such that are inserted into the deceased, so the body must be prepared by removing any objects, stanching any flow of blood and closing any wounds as much as possible. Wounds may not be stitched shut because this is considered damaging the body, so medical adhesive is used. (What they did before medical adhesive is beyond me.)
Any items with blood on them are put in a bag that is placed at the foot of the coffin. Nail polish, makeup and jewelry are removed. As for false teeth and dentures, practices widely vary.
The washing of the body follows a particular order, starting with the head and neck, then the right arm, the right side of the front of the body, the left arm, the left side of the body and the back. The rectum is plugged with a piece of cotton.
After the body is washed, the ritual of the nine kavim is performed: Chevra members ritually wash their hands again and fill three buckets of water. Boards are placed under the body so that it doesn’t touch the table. The body is placed, as much as possible, into a standing position; most funeral homes have tilting tables to help. Nine buckets of water, one after the other without a break, are poured over the entire body starting with the head and moving to the feet. It’s important that a continuous flow is maintained or this part of the ritual must be restarted.
Afterward, the chevra announces in Hebrew, “She/He is pure.” The table is tilted back into its flat position and the body is dried. In some communities, a mixture of raw egg, wine and vinegar is daubed onto the head, chest, arms and hands. An egg, one of the symbols on the Passover seder plate, is considered a symbol of the renewal of life. The yolk is used for women and the white for men. As it is applied, a prayer by Rabbi Akiva is recited. Now the body can be dressed.
There is wide variation on the dress of the deceased. Sometimes the deceased is dressed in their own clothes, or in white linen garments meant to remind us of the Kohen Gadol of the Temple.
Once the body is dressed, it’s time to place it in the coffin (unless the family or deceased prefer a “natural” burial, in which case the deceased is buried in the shroud, as is the practice in Israel). The chevra kadisha inspects the coffin to make sure it has holes in its bottom to hasten the decomposition of the body.
Broken pieces of earthenware are placed over the eyes and mouth of the deceased. First a tallit and then the linen sheet is wrapped around the body. More prayers are recited and then the coffin is closed, not to be opened again.
In the Jewish tradition, there is no “viewing” of the body. The deceased is rolled, feet first, back into the refrigerated room to wait for the burial. Chevra members ceremonially wash their hands.
Tahara is a sacred rite that goes back to the time of our Temple. The purpose and meaning of some of its rituals have been lost in time, and we have reinvented the elements and meaning several times over. But this doesn’t detract from the significance of the ritual, but rather lends it an air of mystery.
The chevra kadisha stands with the deceased between life and death, between the here and the hereafter, between the present and the distant past of Solomon’s Temple, between Gehenna and Paradise.
Afterward there is a sense of completion like no other I’ve experienced. The deceased’s life has officially come to an end. The chevra kadisha has prepared the body for the next step in its journey. The soul has already departed and moved on. And I’m usually filled with hope that when the time comes for me, I’ll be as carefully tended to.
This article is sponsored by UJA-Federation of NY, to raise awareness and facilitate conversations about end of life care in a Jewish context. The story was produced independently and at the sole discretion of JTA’s editorial team.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AJP or its publisher, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.