Who are the Chevra Kadisha?
The Chevra Kadisha translated from Aramaic is “Holy Society,” but they are often referred to as the Jewish Burial Society. The Chevra Kadisha’s role is to prepare Jewish bodies for burial, and it is a great honor and rarity to become a member. Though few modern and reform Jews are even aware of them, the Chevra Kadisha exist within every Jewish community.
What is Their Role In History?
They can be traced back to the Talmudic times, around 200 C.E. Admission into the society was competitive, and great Torah scholars and popular community leaders were chosen for the duty. In times of plague and famine, the Chevra Kadisha would risk their lives to collect and prepare Jewish bodies for a proper burial.
What is Their Role in Funerals?
After a Jewish death, the Chevra Kadisha are called to ritually prepare the body for burial. One task of the Chevra Kadisha is to guard the body 24/7 before the funeral, and the person or persons chosen for this duty are called shomer (literally “guard”). Most importantly, the Chevra Kadisha must also cleanse the body in an act called taharah or ritual purification. In America, the Chevra Kadisha work with local funeral directors and do all the preparations at the funeral home or cemetery.
During taharah, the Chevra Kadisha carefully wash and groom the body, then dress it in a white shroud (a “kittlel”) or other clothing. Women perform taharah on women’s bodies, and men on men’s bodies. Deeply regretful for intruding on the body, they beg for forgiveness during this act. On the seventh day of the Jewish month of Adar (roughly March), which is also the anniversary of Moses’ death, the Chevra Kadisha fast to atone for any disrespect they may have shown the dead.1
The Chevra Kadisha play an important part in the Jewish community. Their role in assisting the deceased on their final earthly journey is considered a great mitzvah - the ultimate act of kindness, since the deceased are not able to repay their benefactors.