The Role of the Chevrah Kadisha
Mayim Bialik has written beautifully in her blog about the death of her father, may his memory be a blessing, and some of the Jewish practices involved in the mourning process. One important aspect around death and dying in a Jewish community that she hasn’t written about is the chevrah kadisha.
The word chevrah comes from chavurah, or friend. The word kadisha comes from kodesh, or holy. So a chevrah kadisha is a “holy group of friends,” more commonly referred to as a “holy society” or even “burial society,” although that refers to only a small part of the work many chevrah kadisha groups are engaged in. Many chevrah kadisha groups visit people who are sick, plan and/or leading shiva services for mourners, and comfort mourners during the first year after the death of a loved one.
The main role the chevrah kadisha plays, however, is to take care of a dead person between death and burial. Many people may assume the physical and spiritual care of a person ends at the time of his or her death, but the members of the chevrah kadisha continue that care during this liminal time when the body is no longer animated by the person’s spirit, but is still above the ground, in the realm of the living.
Jewish tradition does not claim to know with any certainty what happens after a person dies. However, there is a belief that it is a jarring experience when a person’s spirit is separated from his or her body at death, and the spirit is fond of the body which housed it for so long. Therefore, the spirit wants to make sure the body is well taken care of, and will hover nearby until the body is safely buried.
In some communities, the chevrah kadisha will help the family of the deceased person make the funeral and burial arrangements. In most communities, the chevrah kadisha will provide people to stay with the dead person between death and burial (this is called shmirah, or “to guard”), so they never feel alone or abandoned. Lastly, the chevrah kadisha will perform taharah, the physical cleansing and ritual purification the body, and will dress and seal the body in the casket.
One might think, “But wait, isn’t it the funeral home employees who wash and dress the body, and place it in the casket?” Most funeral homes have professional staff who are skilled at these tasks, and some even offer taharah. However, below are reasons why it is preferable for a chevrah kadisha to do these things.
First, taharah is a Jewish ritual involving the reading of Jewish liturgy, and some believe it requires Jewish people to do it with the proper kavanah, or intention. In addition, the members of the chevrah kadisha are usually members of the same community as the deceased person and/or the primary mourners. When, God forbid, someone you love dies, would you rather they be taken care of by strangers who are only doing their job, or by members of your own community who are volunteering their time and who you know will act with great love and respect?
The chevrah kadisha takes extra care which will generally not be afforded by funeral home employees. Regardless of the personal beliefs of any individual chevrah kadisha member, we always act as if the deceased person’s spirit is in the room with us. We start and end our work by stating aloud our intention to provide honor to the dead, and asking forgiveness from the deceased person if we do anything that may offend them during the performance of our task.
We always refer to the deceased person by name or by using the pronouns “him” or “her,” never “it.” We refrain from turning our back on the deceased person, and we don’t talk about anything other than the task at hand. We walk around the body when we need to hand an item to another person, rather than passing it over the body, since doing so would be considered rude.
I am not aware of any similar rituals in the Christian tradition, nor am I knowledgeable about practices in most other faith traditions. However, it is my understanding that the Muslim traditions around the ritual preparation of the dead for burial are strikingly similar to the Jewish traditions. It is one of many things we have in common.
What experiences, if any, have you had with a chevrah kadisha?
Did you ever experience the death of a loved one and wish you had a group like a chevrah kadisha to help you through it?
Susan Esther Barnes is a founding member of Rodef Sholom’s (Marin) Chevrah Kadisha, and she can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. Read her blog at GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
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Gamliel Institute Course 1, Chevrah Kadisha History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE) will be offered over twelve weeks on Tuesday evenings from December 5th, 2016 to February 21st, 2017, online.
Not quite sure if this is for you? Try a free ‘taste’ by coming to an introductory session on Monday, November 14th, 2016 from 8 to 9:30 pm EST. The instructors will talk about what the course includes, give a sense of how it runs, and talk about some of the topics that will be covered in depth in the full course.
For those who register, there will be an orientation session on Monday December 4th. It is intended for those unfamiliar with the online course platform used, all who have not taken a Gamliel Institute course recently, and those who have not used an online webinar/class presentation tool in past.
Class times will be all be 5-6:30 pm PST/6-7:30 pm MST/7-8:30 CST/8-9:30 pm EST. If you are in any other time zone, please determine the appropriate time, given local time and any Daylight Savings Time adjustments necessary.
Please note: the class meetings will be online, and will take place on Tuesdays (unless a Jewish holiday requires a change of date for a class session).
The focus of this course is on the development of the modern Chevrah Kadisha, the origins of current practices, and how the practices and organizations have changed to reflect the surrounding culture, conditions, and expectations. The course takes us through the various text sources to seek the original basis of the Chevrah Kadisha, to Prague in the 1600’s, through the importation of the Chevrah Kadisha to America, and all the way to recent days. It is impossible to really understand how we came to the current point without a sense of the history.
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