When Jews first moved to America, they had few ties to the “Old Country.” They were free to begin to explore Judaism in new and interesting ways. Yet almost without fail the first institution they would establish in a community was not a Synagogue nor even a deli, but rather they would create a Chevrei Kaddisha also known as a burial society.
The Chevrei Kaddisha is a voluntary organization that attends the needs of the deceased. The mitzvot performed by members of a Chevrei Kaddisha are so important that they even take precedence over the study of Torah. Part of the reason why these mitzvot are so significant is because our tradition views this as the last righteous deed one can do for a person. Therefore when preparing a person for burial, it is to be done with diligence and care.
Burial societies in Judaism date as far back as Talmudic times, and are mentioned often in our literature. An example of this is in Ketubot 8b, which talks about how the community took care of one of its own because the ordeal was more than the family could bear.
We are now living in a society where death all to often is something we shy away from. It happens in hospitals and nursing homes and is spoken about in whispers and hushed tones. But our tradition has never viewed death in this way. Rather, death is viewed as an integral part of life, and by participating in the mitzvot done by the Chevrei Kaddisha, we acknowledge the sacredness and holiness of life.
The most important ritual done by the Chevrei Kaddisha involves the act of tahorah, or the ritual washing of the body. This is then followed by the ritual dressing of the body. These rituals are done with a sense of tzeniut or modesty, as it is performed by Jews of the same gender of the deceased.
Before entering the area where this is to be done, often times the members of the Chevrei Kaddisha will recite a prayer in Hebrew to remind them that they commanded to act with loving-kindness and righteousness towards the dead. They then wash their hands and begin the process. Once this is done the participants engage in several tasks including laying out the tachrichim, the linen burial shrouds; preparing the aron, the coffin; setting out the kittel, jacket; as well as arranging the remainder of the supplies as well. They then wash the body, prepare it for burial, and in some communities watch over it throughout then night. Through this all, the deceased is treated with respect and dignity. For in the end, a community achieves greatness not through the tasks that are easy, but instead in the ways it takes care of those at the fringes: the poor, the widow, the stranger, the orphan, and those who have died.