Some members of our Reform congregation would like to establish a Chevra Kaddisha because they are dissatisfied with the local funeral directors. They have requested information concerning the traditional activities of a Chevra Kaddisha from the Orthodox perspective and are inquiring whether there are any "desirable adjustments" from a Reform point of view. (Jay Friedheim, Honolulu, HI.)
The Tradition. The Chevra Kaddisha is "a sacred society" of men and women who make themselves responsible for looking after the deceased and supervising the burial arrangements. It has a long and proud place in Jewish tradition.1 We find mention of burial organizations as early as the Talmudic era.2
The primary purposes of the society are tohorah (washing the corpse), shemirah (watching it) and tachrichim (dressing it properly).
The corpse is first thoroughly and carefully washed. Then the body is positioned for tohorah, the pouring of nine measures (kavim, approximately 24 quarts) of water in an act of ritual purification.3 The duty of shemirah concerns the mitzvah of guarding the deceased. From the moment of death until burial, the corpse is not left alone.4 Finally, the corpse is wrapped in shrouds, tachrichim, and is guarded until burial. At all times, the Chevra Kaddisha is scrupulous to protect the honor of the deceased (kevod hamet).
The responsibilities are performed with a minimum of speaking. Female members of the Chevra Kaddisha care for women, and males care for men. Membership in the Chevra is reserved for the pious, and has long been considered a great honor.
Along with many of the time-honored funeral and burial customs,5 the rituals of the Chevra Kaddisha are considered important but not imperative by the Halakhah. For instance, rabbinic authorities declare that a corpse that does not undergo the ritual of tohorahis still accorded all the privileges of Jewish burial:
Heaven forbid that we should deny the person [the right] to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. For tohorah only serves to honor the dead [and not as a qualification for burial].6
The traditional reason given for the custom of shemirah was to protect the corpse from animals.7 Since, in the majority of cases, this is not a concern for the modern funeral home, shemirah may not appear to be necessary. In fact, shemirahhas become less a time for guarding than for reciting Psalms.
Reform Perspectives. The functions of the Chevra Kaddisha accord with the principles of Reform Judaism. Though they have not become a part of its general practice, which has not required tohorah, shemirah or tachrichim,8 we consider them highly desirable. In larger cities, it has become customary to engage a Jewish funeral director to be responsible for preparing the corpse for burial in order to assure traditional services. However, where there are only non-Jewish funeral directors available, or there is disregard for Jewish sensitivities and burial customs, we would encourage the community to establish either a Chevra Kaddisha or some other organization that would be involved with funeral and burial arrangements. 9 Together with a Rabbi, it should meet with the local funeral directors (both Jewish and Gentile) to insure that they are aware of the appropriate way to handle Jewish deceased. At the very least, the Reform Chevra Kaddisha must insist that the principles of honoring the dead are being met: that the Jewish deceased are washed carefully, and that the corpse is treated with dignity in preparation for burial.
Not sursprisingly, finding the right people to perform such a task has often proven to be difficult. The sources are filled with admonitions that attempt to regulate the behavior of those who are assigned the task of staying with the deceased throughout the nights and days before burial.
A Reform Chevra Kaddisha can be an important (and sometimes necessary) addition to the Jewish community. It is desirable especially when it adds to the traditional functions a concern for comforting the mourners (nichum avelim). For instance, it could establish itself as the congregational branch that is responsible for helping the family make the arrangements before and after the burial. After the funeral, the Chevra Kaddisha, or one of its auxiliaries, could see to it that the mourners will come home to a se'udat havra'ah, the meal of consolation. They could also help assemble a minyan for services during shiva. They could explain and make available to all Jews the traditional rituals and customs in caring for the dead.10
Organizationally, the Chevra might begin as a congregational or inter-congregational service, offered to members, and in time offer its services to all Jews. Even in its early, limited role, the congregational Chevra Kaddisha would make a positive contribution to the Jewish community. It should not take long for the local funeral directors to become sensitized to Jewish burial practices and customs.
Some Reform communities have successfully established a traditional Chevra Kaddisha. Others have created a related organization or committee that is responsible for helping the mourning family with burial, funeral and shiv'a arrangements.11 In all cases, it is a mitzvah for friends an congregants to share in the duties and responsibilities of caring for the deceased and their grieving families. Certainly, every community would be greatly blessed by the dedication of those who help others through the pain and anguish occasioned by the loss of a loved one.
We therefore heartily endorse your intention of rendering this valuable service.
Goldin's Hamadrikh (New York, 1939) and in Maurice Lamm's The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (New York, 1969); see also Encyclopaedia Judaica 8:442-446, where a brief history of the institution is given.
before entering the house of mourning is declared not necessary. R. Jacob b. Asher goes on to declare that many of the customs at the cemetery are for symbolic reasons only (end of 376).
#100, the reference to Ma'avar Yabok).
(905) 709-2275; Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, 220 South Bedford Road, Chappaqua, NY, 10514, (914) 238-3928; Congregation B'nai Torah, 2789 Oak St., Highland Park, Illinois, 60035, (708) 433-7100.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.