An elite club existed in the European shtetl,
the membership of which was handed down from father to son like most precious heritage. Often its members were chosen by lot or by secret vote. The chevra kadisha,
the "Sacred Society" was generally the first group to be organized in the founding of any Jewish community. The chevra was responsible for the entire spectrum of burial service, from pronouncing death to plot allotment and cemetery maintenance.
This unique specialty originates in part from the Talmudic passage: "Rabbi Simlai lectured: Torah begins and ends with acts of kindness.... It concludes with an act of kindness, as is written (Deut.); 'And He buried him (Moses) in the valley'"(Sotah 14A). Thus, the act of burial and its preparation is seen as an emulation of G-d, fulfilling the commandment to "walk in His ways." It is for this reason that the day of the birth and death of Moses, Zayin Adar, the seventh day of the month of Adar, is the traditional celebration of the chevra kadisha, underscoring that on that day G-D performed the work of the chevra, thereby giving it its special status.
What happened in this country that for many years the chevra was less than respected, often ridiculed and largely ignored? Why was the chevra generally perceived by the funeral director as an outside group to be called in at a time of necessity, only when insisted upon by the family, the rabbi, the society, or the cemetery? Respect for the chevra kadisha as an institution, appreciation for the beauty of its customs, interest in its meaning to the Jewish community, declined to a great extent. I dare say, that even within the most traditional quarters of the Jewish community, there was a loss of respect and appreciation for the work of the chevra, whose members often downplayed and denied their participation. Why?
The loss of prestige of the work of the chevra would be more understandable and less painful if the customs and traditions were not so beautiful and full of meaning. However, in truth, tahara
(the preparation of the body) is very rich in its significance, its every ritual a reflection of the most basic concepts of our faith. Proper performance of the tahara and shmira
(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 the Bais 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.