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The process of preparing the deceased for burial.
Jewish law and custom provide guidance for every lifecycle event: birth, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage and death.  It is especially important at the end of life, when emotions may cloud one's judgment, to know that Jewish law inbues this milestone with spiritual significance that protects the dignity of the deceased.

The process of preparing the deceased for burial is called tahara, or purification.  It is conducted by the Jewish burial society, a group of community volunteers called the Chevra Kadisha, or hold brotherhood.   A tahara should be requested when the funeral arrangements are made.

The Jewish Perception of Death
In order to understand the laws and customs of Jewish funeral practices, we must first understand the Jewish perception of death.

In life, a person is an integrated whole, composed of body and soul.  The soul, while not visible, is nevertheless the essence, the feelings and the personality, contained within the living body.

At death, the two parts are separated.  The body is respectfully buried, while the soul, the neshama, prepares to enter Eternity.  We believe that the neshama remains near the body until burial.

Our treatment of the deceased is governed by a the principle of kovod ha met, respect for the body.  Just as the ark in a synagogue acquires holiness from the Torah within it, so does the human body become a holy vessel because it contains the soul, a spark of the Divine in every person.  Accordingly, Judaism requires that we uniquely respect the body of the deceased in our every action.

The Burial Society
Preparation of the deceased for burial is entrusted to the Chevra Kadisha.  Throughout Jewish history, serving on the Chevra Kadisha has been a great honor.  These men and women, selected for their character, integrity and personal devotion, are volunteers who are specially trained to perform a tahara.  Working in teams, these men and women, depending on the gender of the deceased, are always on call to fulfill their duties.

Entrusting preparation to the Chevra Kadisha insures the highest level of sensitivity and dignity in conformity with Jewish law and custom.

Preparation for Burial
As death is the end of the cycle of life, funeral rituals reflect those of birth.  Thus, just as a newborn is washed and dressed, the deceased is carefully washed and dressed by members of the Chevra Kadisha.

The deceased is made ready to enter the world to come by ritual purification.  He or she is dressed in white linen.  Finally, the body is gently lowered into the casket wrapped in a linen sheet and tallit and the casket is closed.

Embalming and cremation are generally prohibited by Jewish law, except in extraordinary circumstances.

Throughout the tahara, special prayers are recited that relate to the tasks of preparing the body.  These prayers draw upon the Torah, Prophets and the Song of Songs.  At several points, they refer to the deceased by his or her Hebrew name, and that of his or her father.  For this reason, it is important to provide the funeral chapel with these names, if they are known.

When the body has been rendered ritually clean, it is carefully dressed in special clothing called tachrichim, shrouds of white linen.  The same shrouds are used for all taharas, in recognition of the equality of all before G-d.  The tachrichim used for both men and women, consist of a head covering, shirt, trousers, coat and belt.  They are patterned after the outfit worn by the High Priest in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur.  The tachrichim are hand sewn, and have no pockets, signifying that the deceased carries no worldy goods to the grave.

After a man has been dressed in the shroads, his talllit, prayer shawl, is placed around his shoulders.  If possible, family should bring this tallit to the funeral chapel.  If not, one will be provided.

The Casket
Jewish law requires that the body be allowed to return to the earth as speedily as possible: "For dust thou art and to dust you shall return" (Gen. III, 19).  Therefore, the casket must be made entirely of wood with a few holes in the bottom to hasten the body's natural decomposition.  In keeping with the concept of equality in death, the simplest wood casket is most appropriate.

When the body is settled in the casket, shards of pottery are placed on the eyes and mouth as a symbolic reminder of human frailty.  Soil from Israel is sprinkled in the casket and over the shrouded body, a concrete connection with the land of our ancestors.  The deceased is wrapped in a large linen sheet and the casket is closed.

As the casket is closed, each person on the team offers a silent personal prayer for the departed.

The closed casket should not be reopened.  It is considered disrespectful and undignified to disturb the preparations that have been made by the Chevra Kadisha and therefore the practice of viewing the deceased is forbidden by Jewish law.

Finally, the body in its wooden casket is taken to the cemetary for burial.  After interment the neshama is completely free of the body and returns to Heaven.  As the prophet says, "The dust returns to the earth and the spirit returns to G-d who gave it."

Jewish law requires burial as soon as possible after death to facilitate the immediate beginning of the body's return to earth.  In accordance with Jewish law, the body is buried in the earth, with family and friends participating in the final rite of filling in the grave.

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