Jewish Burial: The Best Kept Religious Secret
Last year, a friend told me about Chevra Kadisha — the Jewish burial society. I had known that such an organization existed, but I thought, “Who actually wants to join this club?” Still, I was intrigued, and a few days later I was speaking with Naomi, who was reputed to be an expert at performing the tahara — the process by which Jews are prepared for burial.
Naomi invited me to a funeral home. “Come straight to the back,” she said. As I walked inside, I felt a quiet rush of Jewish connectedness; I didn’t know what I was doing there, but I felt honored to be doing it. I walked through to the back room — to the place where the tahara happens.
Two women were already there and so was the the body of the deceased woman.
When the two other women arrived and the process got fully underway, communication was almost exclusively through hand motioning and head nodding. (Naomi had told me earlier that conversation would be minimal during the process, but I didn’t realize how minimal.) I learned later that the departed person’s soul is actually present in the room, hovering between the physical and spiritual worlds. Apparently, under these circumstances, the less said the better.
There’s not much to tell you about the tahara process, because it’s meant to be done with the utmost privacy and respect for the body of the deceased. I can tell you that it’s gentle and loving, that it’s known as hesed shel emet (true kindness), because the deceased person can never repay the favor. I can tell you there are selfless people in every Jewish community all over the world who perform this mitzvah, and almost nobody knows who they are. I can tell you that it’s not hypocritical for people to choose Jewish burials even if those same people didn’t choose to live Jewish lives.
Jewish burial preparation is one of those things Jews have done for thousands of years, but it’s one of those Jewish things I had never experienced. In the brief hour I spent with these women, I felt humbled to be in the presence of people who provide such an essential link in the chain of Jewish life — yet do it all in secret. I guess when you spend such intimate time with God, that’s job satisfaction enough.
I saw the burial process as a strikingly clear convergence of matter and spirit — the essence of Judaism. In that one hour in the back of a funeral home, I saw in a new way how all Jews are connected, even Jews whose life force has left them. My presence in the room that day may have added only a tiny link to this holy chain, but the experience was enough to give me a whole new appreciation for the way Judaism regards life from beginning to end.