*This article can also be found on page 18 in the 2022 Rosh Hashanah print edition
By Barbara Powell
The Chevra Kadisha, an Aramaic term meaning “Sacred Society,” refers to the group of men and women who volunteer to prepare the deceased for burial in accordance with halacha (Jewish law). For more than 2,000 years, Jews have been burying Jews, and the Chevra Kadisha has evolved to facilitate this practice. While the scope of a Chevra Kadisha’s tasks might vary from community to community, the two fundamental responsibilities of all Chevrot Kadisha are shmira, the safeguarding of the body, and tahara, the ritual cleansing and dressing of the body.
In cities with large Jewish populations, there are often multiple Chevrot Kadisha, either organized by area of town or by affiliation with a particular denomination. In San Antonio, our Chevra Kadisha is community-based, drawing its volunteer membership from all of our congregations. The Jewish Federation provides the Chevra Kadisha with the financial support it needs for training and support services and maintains an informational web page for the community. Porter Loring Mortuary arranges the vast majority of Jewish funerals in San Antonio, and our Jewish community has a strong working relationship with them; most of our work is done at Porter Loring’s facilities.
So, what is this work that a Chevra Kadisha does? To best understand the laws and customs of Jewish funeral practices, it helps to begin with the Jewish perception of death. In life, a person’s body is like a vessel, imbued with a neshama, a soul. At death, the body and neshama are separated. Though the neshama no longer inhabits the body, it doesn’t immediately depart. Instead, it remains nearby, hovering around its former body until the burial. This is the reason Jewish funerals take place as quickly as possible: to decrease the neshama’s distress as it awaits its transition to the Eternal World.
It also helps explain why we still request the services of a Shomer or a Shomeret, a person to “guard” the body until its internment, even though we no longer fear that a stranger will come along and carry the body away. The Shomer’s presence has a dual role: it demonstrates the respect we accord the body–which was so important to the neshama during life–and the psalms and prayers that the Shomer reads during the vigil provide comfort to the neshama as it awaits the burial.
Before that burial can take place, the deceased’s body must be ritually cleansed through a process referred to as the tahara. A team of women perform the taharas for women, and a team of men do the same for men. The tahara team’s behavior is governed by the principle of Kavod Ha-met, honoring the body. We envision the neshama in the room with us, observing our actions, and so we treat the body with great dignity and gentleness; preserving modesty by only uncovering parts of the body as needed, and refraining from speech unrelated to the task at hand. In keeping with the desire to bring comfort to the neshama, psalms are recited at every step in the process.
The first step is to clean the body. Just as a newborn is carefully cleaned after entering the world, the body of the deceased is carefully cleaned in preparation for leaving the world. Once the physical cleansing is completed, a spiritual cleansing is performed through the ritual pouring of water (or immersion in a tahara mikveh, where available). Next, the body is carefully dried and dressed in hand-sewn tachrichim (linen shrouds). The shrouds are intended to resemble the white garments worn by the High Priest in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur, when he stood before Gd, asking for the needs of his family and the entire Jewish People. The tachrichim, which are almost identical for men and women, consist of a head covering, a shirt, pants stitched closed at the feet, a coat, and a belt (also a tallit, for men). The shrouds used are the same for everyone, regardless of one’s social status during life, because at death, we are all equal before Gd. Additionally, the shrouds have no pockets, emphasizing the fact that the deceased are carrying no worldly goods to the grave.
After the dressing is finished, the body is placed in the aron (casket). A kosher aron is made entirely from wood because halacha requires that the body return to the dust as quickly as possible, “For dust thou art and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19). In accordance with the concept of equality in death, selecting the simplest wood casket available is always an appropriate choice. With the body in the aron, Israeli earth is sprinkled as a reminder of our connection to the land of our ancestors. The deceased is wrapped in a large linen sheet (sovev). Directly before closing the aron, the tahara team requests forgiveness for any offense they may have caused during the tahara. Once the aron is sealed, it should not be reopened. Viewing the body is forbidden by Jewish law because it is seen as an undignified and disrespectful practice. The Shomeret or Shomer will accompany the closed casket to the cemetery for the burial.
San Antonio is fortunate to have an amazing group of volunteers who regularly give their time–occasionally at the last minute–to ensure that every Jewish person in our community can have a Jewish burial. Even during the height of Covid, our Chevra Kadisha continued to perform taharas; no one was turned away.
I wish I could list the names of all of our wonderful Chevra Kadisha members here, since they certainly deserve our gratitude for their dedication, but I can’t. There’s a tradition that discourages members of the Chevra Kadisha from drawing undue attention to themselves. In fact, until fairly recently, it was an almost universal custom for Chevrot Kadisha membership to be completely anonymous. Anonymity helps keep the community’s attention focused solely on the deceased and the mourners in their time of sorrow. It also makes the mitzvah of the ritual–considered chesed shel emet (the truest act of kindness) since the deceased have no way to repay their benefactors–even more impactful to those who perform it, because no one can thank them for their efforts; they truly receive no benefit beyond the performance of the mitzvah itself. Most importantly, anonymity of the tahara team is essential, because it shields the deceased’s family members and friends from feeling any obligation to those who helped with their loved ones’ burials.
As the trend toward community-wide Chevrot has grown, it’s become less possible, or even desirable, for a Chevra’s membership to remain totally anonymous. Here in San Antonio, we want to see our Chevra Kadisha membership grow so that it continues to thrive and perform its vital function for our community. Which means that discovering that the person you’ve been sitting next to in your temple, shul or synagogue is a member of the Chevra Kadisha, well, that might not be a bad thing. Asking questions of a current or former member is a great way to learn more about this mitzvah and to determine whether it is one that you’re interested in exploring. If you would like more information about our San Antonio Chevra Kadisha, you can email us at email@example.com.