Respect for a Sacred Society
In modern-day Jewish burials, the beauty of tahara has the reverence it once had long ago
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(the vigil kept at the side of the body until burial) are a unique expression of the ultimate respect for the dignity and the specialty of man.
There is no place in this article to explain each minute custom and its origin and significance. However, as an example, let me cite two main themes: The first is that Judaism is predicated on the belief in an afterlife where men and women will receive their ultimate eternal reward after appearing before G-d for their final judgment, in essence their final Yom Kippur. Is it not then fascinating to know that the traditional burial shroud is designed to be exactly like the clothing worn by the High Priest for his Yom Kippur service, before G-d, in theBais Hamikdosh,
our holy Temple? Doesn't it make sense to carefully wash and clean, and yes, ritually purify, all Jews before their final Yom Kippur, when they are soon to appear before the heavenly court?
A second accepted Jewish belief is that while the soul departs from the body upon death, it nevertheless remains nearby, fully aware of what transpires to the body and around it. This contradicts the oft-cited belief that funerals are for the living. In fact, the dead are very much "present" at their funeral. An excellent essay on this subject was written by Aryeh Kaplan and published in a pamphlet by the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) of the Orthodox Union, entitled "Immortality and the Soul."
With this understanding, the care with which the body is treated in the washing and dressing process, the prohibition against unnecessary talk at the tahara, the need for someone to watch and stay by the body, and the beautiful tradition of asking the deceased for forgiveness if anything was lacking in the respect given them, are not simply ancient rituals, but rather the logical consequence of the Jewish perception of death and burial. Certainly, all of this transcends the issue of whether one had been a practicing Jew or not. Nor does it much matter if one was affiliated with an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform congregation, or not affiliated at all. As a Jew, one is deserving of a burial reflecting the richness and the beauty of Jewish tradition and belief.