Respect for a Sacred Society
In modern-day Jewish burials, the beauty of tahara has the reverence it once had long ago
I think the lack of respect and appreciation for the chevra during the middle decades of this century has many reasons. The underlying cause is probably an outgrowth of the way in which European Jews settled in this country. They were generally individuals seeking to better their economic or family situation in a land of opportunity, not people coming to build Jewish community. Most often they were seeking to become Americans. When Jews with a deep commitment to Orthodoxy arrived, they often felt this existing secular American-Jewish community to be a threat to their beliefs.
What therefore developed was a chevra kadisha of two kinds. On the one hand were the devout, sincerely religious Jews who, in America, perceived themselves to be in an atmosphere dangerous to the maintenance of almost every facet of their chosen way of life. They came to the Jewish funeral home to do battle with the director in a holy war where every compromise was perceived as territory lost. These chevras, representing societies or congregations, had little understanding of the practical and economic needs and problems of the funeral director, nor were they willing to learn. They were satisfied with the knowledge that when one of their own passed on, they could pressure the funeral home into doing the funeral their way.
Prevalent in many other communities was the chevra comprised of those people who could not make it in the business world, who found a way of making a dollar by doing a job no one else would do. They commercialized the chevra. Their concern was not the respect for the work they were doing, and if necessitated by time or convenience, the tahara would be done quickly, without sensitivity, without any real standard of excellence. Their purpose was served as long as it was done and they were paid, and the service was provided to the basic satisfaction of all.
This continued through the '50's and '60's as the Holocaust survivors came to this country, as separate individuals, without roots or community identification. Interestingly, where entire communities came together, like the German Jewish community and some of the Hassidic sects that settled in this country, this phenomenon didn't occur. They just transplanted their chevra to this country, maintaining the respect and the integrity of its work.
Thank G-d, this situation is turning around. As the children of the Holocaust generation are forming communities of their own, their concern for this important facet of the Jewish lifecycle has come back into focus. Chevras of young, educated, and sincere people, men and women committed to maintaining the beauty and the uniqueness of our heritage, have sprung up all across this country. Many of these chevras will act as the legal agents of the family regarding all funeral arrangements, thus sparing the family that difficulty, while speeding up the process of burial. These groups have the respect of the funeral directors they deal with and the confidence of the communities they serve. I know because I have lectured to many of them.