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 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
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
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.
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.
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
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.